Spotted pipsissewa easily earns its stripes.
Providing for medical, herbal and forage needs, this potent little plant gives more than it takes. Native Americans were the first to figure out its fantastic functions.
The name pipsissewa comes from the Cree word “pipsiskwee,” which translates into “breaks into pieces,” alluding to the plant’s use to treat kidney stones. Other native tribes also used this and other plants in the same genus of Chimophila (winter-loving), to ward off tuberculosis, cure blisters, ease backaches and even smoked it for pleasure.
In 1912, Onondaga herbalist Sam Hill suggested a use that could treat two patients at once. “When a pregnant woman feels feverish and drowsy, she is not sick, her baby is. Make a small bundle of Pipsissewa about one inch thick using the whole plant. Put this in one-half quart of water to steep. Take a cupful four times a day until it is used up.”
Not-so-famous botanist Frederick Traugott Pursh confirms its potential, “The plant is in high esteem for its medicinal qualities among the natives; They call it Sip-si-sewa. I have myself been witness of a successful cure made by a decoction of this plant, in a very severe case of hysteria. It is a plant eminently deserving the attention of physicians.”
On a side note, but of human interest, you may want to take Mr. Pursh’s recommendation with a grain of salt. His credibility and honor were questioned when his short life was described by one source as “a tale of emotional and professional highs and lows, fortune and misfortune, and triumphs and tragedies. He survives in botanical history by virtue of a single book, his Flora americae septentrionalis. He lies dead in an unmarked grave somewhere in Montreal, Canada, a drunk and destitute.”
No matter the fate of Mr. Pursh, no one can deny that spotted pipsissewa is nice to look at, even if its medical uses are controversial. Down on the ground along many trails in our oak and pine woodlands, look for this common, yet pleasantly peculiar-looking, plant.
Spotted pipsissewa, or spotted wintergreen, has a name that causes confusion because its appearance contradicts its name. It has dark green, waxy leaves that have a bold white stripe, not spots, along its middle. It is no wonder that other names include more accurate accounting of its leaf pattern. Striped prince’s pine and striped wintergreen seem more accurate and sensible to describe this species.
Take note the dark stem and white waxy flowers that are just finishing their bloom. In a nod against convention, the flower blossoms face downward and turn 180 degrees after fertilization so that brown seed capsules face up. These can persist into winter, and even until next year’s bloom time.
For your tasting pleasure, foragers note that the leaves can be chewed or brewed for tea. In Mexico, it is an essential ingredient in the preparation of tesgüino, an alcohol made from sprouted corn. With a hint of mint, it was also used to flavor candy and even added to home-brewed root beer. The flavor of wintergreen has become familiar to most of us, probably through its popularity in chewing gum. Take care if collecting it, though, as some sources maintain that it can cause irritations to the skin of some susceptible folks.
In these torrid days of summer, it’s worth remembering (and nice to know) that there are these winter-lovers — the Chimophilia — among us, already embracing the long, cold season inevitably approaching.
But until that season comes, spotted pipsissewa has no reason to change its stripes.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature.