Pipsissewa gives an evergreen hint of mint in the Berkshires

Thursday December 27, 2012

Few woodland plant names flow from the lips with such magic and rhythm as the petit pipsissewa -- say the name (pronounced pip-sis-ee-wah) aloud a few times, and you'll understand.

The common name comes from a Native American language: The Cree name is 'pipsisikweu,' and translated into English it means "breaks into pieces," referring to the Indians' habit of using this plant to treat gallstones.

Native peoples found other uses for it: The Penobscot and Mohegan tribes boiled the leaves of the plant in water and applied the solution topically to cure blisters; the Catawba extracted a solution to ease backaches and called it ‘fire flower,' while the Ojibwe prepared a solution with its roots for drops to ease sore eyes. In the Northwest Plateau nations, some at least, boiled a concoction of the plant to treat tuberculosis.

Early European settlers also learned uses for pipsissewa, taking it as a remedy for rheumatism and kidney problems. It later became used as a diuretic and astringent.

Through the early 20th century, it was a tonic and home remedy in rural America, gradually losing popularity after World War 1 and was even listed in the U.S. Pharmacopeia until 1916.

Few of these remedies are accepted today, but even now pipsissewa remains an essential ingredient in making good, natural root beer. As late as the first half of the 20th century it wasn't uncommon to find candies and even commercial root beer flavored by it.

Many know pipsissewa by other names -- including ground holly, pine tulip, princes' pine, waxflower, bitter wintergreen, rheumatism weed, love-in-winter, and everlasting leaf (a translation from the Ojibwe "gagigebug").

Two species of this perennial evergreen, rarely growing taller than 10 inches, are found in dry oak and pine woods, and although uncommon in Berkshire County are easily found in the Connecticut Valley to our east.

The one most commonly called pipsissewa is Chimaphila umbellata (Chimaphila coming from the Greek cheima meaning "winter" and phila meaning "lover.") The other, and more abundant, is spotted wintergreen or spotted pipsissewa (Chimaphila maculata), and it is sometimes found growing near, if not next to the other. They are in the Shinleaf family (pyrolaceae) and a relative, shinleaf pyrola, is common here.

Pipsissewa has solid green, glossy, toothed leaves, while spotted wintergreen, better named striped wintergreen has as a white pattern to the leaves. Snow doesn't stick well to their glossy leaves, making them easier to see when there is a light covering of snow on the ground. When you find some, make note of the place and return in late June through August to enjoy their downward facing waxy white flowers, often with a tinge of purple or pink.

Like many other woodland plants, they rely on soil fungi to supply them with beneficial nutrients.

In the Berkshires, finding dry pine or oak woods may lead you to discover these plants. Pipsissewa also grows sporadically with their five other family members at Bartholomew's Cobble in Ashley Falls.

We found it the Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area, near downtown Northampton. From Route 9, take Bridge Street at Look Park to Cooke Avenue, or from Route 5 and 10 (North King Street) take Hatfield Street, turning right on Cooke Avenue to parking and kiosk near Moose Lodge.

Shortly after entering the property, along the right side of the path, you will spot both species growing along the roadside and occasionally throughout the woods.


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