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Umbellate Wintergreen

Chimaphila umbellata

  • Name also: Pipsissewa, Prince’s Pine
  • Family: Heather Family – Ericaceae
    (formerly Wintergreen Family – Pyrolaceae)
  • Growing form: Perennial wintergreen dwarf shrub.
  • Height: 10–25 cm. Stem bristly, woody.
  • Flower: Corolla regular (actinomorphic), light reddish, 7–12 mm (0.28–0.48 in.) wide, nodding; petals 5. Calyx 5-lobed. Stamens 8 or 10. Pistil a fused carpel, single-styled. Inflorescence a 2–5-flowered umbel, flowers downward-curved.
  • Leaves: Alternate in two whorls, short-stalked, overwintering. Blade narrowly obovate, large-toothed, rigid, dark green, shiny.
  • Fruit: Spherical, 5-parted capsule.
  • Habitat: Dryish forest heaths, esker woods.
  • Flowering time: July.
  • Endangerment: Near threatened.

Wintergreens that grow in Finland are mainly dwarf shrubs, but umbellate wintergreen could be classified to semi dwarf shrubs. The structure of its woody stems and plastic-like rigid leaves make it more reminiscent of perhaps lingonberry than any of its relatives. It is hard to find at the beginning of summer before it has flowered, hiding in among all the other brush on the forest floor: umbellate wintergreen’s leaves are shiny and leathery in the same way as lingonberry’s, but they are in distinct whorls, are larger and have serrated tips. Umbellate wintergreen doesn’t bloom until the first lingonberry plants are beginning to turn red at the end of the summer. A cross-section of the growth rings makes it possible to count the plant’s age as one can with the rings of a tree. The plant’s name highlights its most prominent feature: its umbellate inflorescence. Umbellate wintergreen’s generic name Chimaphila means ”friend of winter”, and like other wintergreens, as its name suggests, it stays green throughout the winter.

Umbellate wintergreen likes a continental climate and warm air, and it doesn’t thrive in poor or acid soils. In Finland it grows mainly on warm, south-facing pine forests. It likes its coniferous forest to be at least reasonably old, and it is pointless to look for it among young trees. It grows most abundantly in the south-east of southern Häme and in Salpausselkä and other coniferous areas around southern Savo. Its northernmost habitats are in Vaasa, Nilsiä, Joensuu and Kitee. Finns have never paid much attention to the plant, probably because it is quite rare. In southern Europe it is dedicated to good spirits, fairies, goblins and other forest folk. It also has a good reputation as a medicinal herb.

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