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Teaberry ~ it’s more than a gum

Teaberries stay red even after a winter under the snow. Photo courtesy of the USDA

Laura Dean Bennett
Contributing Writer

A while ago I got to thinking about teaberry gum and went to looking around to see if I could buy some. 

Well, you probably knew this already, but it’s not easy to find Clark’s Teaberry Gum anymore. In fact, it’s nigh onto impossible. 

Even on the Internet. 

Teaberry gum was manufactured by the D. L. Clark Company of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. 

They purchased the patent from Charles Burke, who started the whole teaberry gum thing around 1900 by experimenting with various flavors of chewing gum in the basement of his home in Pittsburgh.

Teaberry was then marketed all across the U.S. by Clark. They manufactured it in Mexico. 

There was a day when every little store, grocery store and gas station would have carried it, but, these days – well, things change.

From the turn of the 20th century to the height of its popularity in the 1960s, and into the 21st century, teaberry gum was one of America’s first chewing gums and favorite treats. 

It was my mom’s favorite gum, and mine, too.

Now, back in the sixties, when I first remember enjoying it, it was considered impolite to chew gum in public (at least it was in my house), so there were rules about where and when one might enjoy a stick of gum. 

But Mom almost always had a pack of teaberry gum in her purse or in the drawer in the kitchen where she kept odds and ends. As long as I was at home, or out in the car with my mom, and I could chew it without anyone knowing, I was allowed to do so. 

But never was I permitted to chew gum in public, that meant school, church or in any group of people.

Yes, it was a much different world then.

Until I began researching this story, I had no idea that teaberry plants had such an interesting history.
Beyond making a great chewing gum flavor, teaberry leaves have, for centuries, been used to brew an invigorating and medicinal tea. 

And it’s fascinating that the little teaberry plant seemingly has more names than any other plant. 

Depending where you find it and who you ask, teaberry may be called American wintergreen, checkerberry, boxberry, grouseberry, spiceberry, mountainberry, deerberry, leatherleaf, Canadian mint, hillberry, groundberry, Johnny Jump Ups (I know- that’s our name for wild violets, but some people use it for teaberry), red berry tea, wax cluster, ivoryberry and mountain tea.

The Ojibwa called it Winisbugons, meaning “Dirty Leaf” and the French called it, la Petit te du bois, “The Little Tea of the Woods.”  

Its official scientific name is Gaultheria procumbens (procumbens means trailing close to the ground).

Its first name is from the name of a famous French botanist and physician, Jean Francois Gaultier.

He was the first scientist to document teaberry’s common use as a bracing tea with many medicinal uses. 

Gaultier was the king’s official physician and naturalist. He was sent to study what new medicines could be derived from plants in Quebec, or New France, as it was called in the 18th century.

He accumulated thousands of specimens of New World flora to study and send home. He managed to get so many by having fort commanders order their men to range far and wide to collect plant specimens for him. 

In a 1749 botanical manuscript, Gaultier lists 134 plant species, many of which he was the first to mention, including four species of pine. 

Gaultier wasn’t only interested in plants. He also set up the first weather station in Canada and kept a log of its readings from 1742 to 1756. 

He sent minerals and preserved animals back to France for scientists to study. 

But his central interest was the medical properties of plants, hence his fascination with the humble “little tea of the woods.”

Teaberry is a small, unassuming perennial shrub that is native to the upper eastern parts of North America, like Quebec, New England and West Virginia.

For centuries, before it was used to make chewing gum, it was very popular as tea among our ancestors, hence the name teaberry, or mountain tea, but many of us, me included, have long forgotten its origins. 

The evergreen teaberry leaves, which have an earthy, wintergreen flavor with a slightly bitter aftertaste, can be harvested for tea any time of the year.

Long before Gaultier “discovered” teaberry tea and its effectiveness as a medicine, Native Americans had been collecting and drying the leaves for a medicinal tea. 

The active ingredient teaberry oil, called “wintergreen oil,” made from the leaves, is methyl salicylate, which is a compound similar to aspirin. 

In fact the oil of wintergreen was used in some of the first commercially prepared aspirin tablets. 

Due to this property, the teaberry, or wintergreen plant was used by Native Americans and the early settlers in much the same way as we do aspirin today. 

Most often the chemical would be derived from making a tea, which was made by steeping the leaves in boiling water. The tea was drunk as a cure for headaches, to soothe sore muscles, and to relieve all sorts of aches and pains. 

To make a stronger medicinal tea from teaberry leaves another method was used. 

The crushed leaves were steeped in warm sterile water for a few days until they began to bubble – or ferment.

Then those leaves, either drained and dried, or wet, directly from the fermentation process, could be brewed to make medicine.

Teaberry plants like to grow in places like Pocahontas County – in mountainous areas, in partially shady and wet woodland areas where ferns, mushrooms and moss thrive. 

It has small, rounded semi-shiny leaves and bears tiny bell-shaped white flowers that mature into red berries that sometimes have a pinkish hue. 

The berries have a mealy texture with a light, yet fragrant scent and an understated berry flavor with a hint of a warm mint and spice undertone.

Teaberry plants grow like a ground cover by sending roots far and wide. 

The plants have a spreading habit – one huge patch can actually be a single plant.
It usually grows less than six inches from the ground and has small, shiny, tiny-toothed evergreen leaves about an inch to two inches long. 

When they are crushed, the leaves have a wintergreen odor. 

Its small flowers come on in mid-to-late summer and develop into bright red berries which ripen in late summer or fall, and hide underneath the leaves. 

The berries are very hearty – they can last throughout the year and still be found in April, when the snow recedes enough to allow one to find them safely tucked under the leaves. 

While the Native Americans and the early European settlers ate teaberry leaves and berries as a trail nibble, modern foragers should use caution.  

The leaves can irritate the stomach if too many are eaten at one time. And those with specific medical conditions should, of course, consult their doctor before consuming teaberry leaves or berries. 

Besides making a tasty, minty tea, an effective pain reliever, and a delicious chewing gum, teaberry plants have also been used as flavoring for candies, cough drops and even wine. 

Humans are not the only beneficiaries of the marvelous teaberry plant. 

Squirrels, chipmunks, birds, mice, grouse, quail, wild turkeys, foxes, deer and bears also enjoy eating its berries. And the tough, evergreen leaves provide shelter for many small birds and animals. 
Now, I’d just like to have one more taste of teaberry gum – one little pack. I fondly recall the exact aroma of the sweet, spicy delicacy.

Even Cracker Barrel, where I could always depend on finding it on my road trips, doesn’t carry it anymore – at least, when I looked it up on their website, they said it was “out of stock.” 

Maybe you can still get it in some of the Cracker Barrel stores themselves. 

I don’t travel like I used to, so you, gentle readers, will have to help me forage for the elusive teaberry gum of our childhoods. 

If you find it, drop me off a pack, will you?

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