I did brave the woods – briefly – on Sunday afternoon, the only nice, sunny day we’ve had here during my stay. The mosquitoes were not deterred by the sunshine and especially not in the woods, and though I’d taken my camera I barely slowed down during the whole walk, which took me the approximately 1.1 km (0.7 mi) to the back of the property and back. I made one single stop, battling mosquitoes for the roughly 23 seconds I paused, to take a few photos of these flowers. On the way out I’d only noticed one, which happened to be growing right in the middle of the trail, and then a couple more nearby. On the way back, now that I was looking for them, I saw quite a few more near the trail edges. One of the reasons they’d particularly grabbed my attention was because there’d been one growing at our Blue Lakes MAPS site at our last visit, which I’d intended to get a photo of but forgotten whenever I passed by.
I didn’t recognize the flower as one I’d encountered before, and had to look it up. My mom has quite a nice field guide called Forest Plants of Central Ontario, and a quick flip through the book turned up the flower. It’s Pyrola elliptica, which is most commonly known as Shinleaf, or less often Waxflower Shinleaf or White Wintergreen. As the last name suggests, it’s a type of wintergreen, in the family Pyrolaceae (the wintergreen family). The book lists five species of Pyrola in central Ontario, all of which look fairly similar. Shinleaf can be told apart from the others by its leaves, which are about the same length, or longer than, their stalks, and which taper into the stalk rather than having a clear point where the stalk joins the leaf.
Interestingly, it’s completely unrelated to what we typically associate with the name “Wintergreen”, Gaultheria procumbens, as the latter is actually part of the heath/blueberry family, Ericaeae. It’s this latter plant that we associate with the scent/flavour of wintergreen.
Pyrola elliptica is found throughout the deciduous and mixed forests of the northern hemisphere, on both Eurasia and North America. It’s a common species, occurring south through the Appalachians in the east as far as North Carolina, and down the Rockies in the west to New Mexico. It favours moist woods, and certainly much of my parents’ forest is damp or swampy.
Its name comes from its historic medical use as a topical salve and pain-reliever; crushed leaves were applied to bruises or injuries, and the aspirin-like compounds in the leaves would ease pain. Such pastes were called “shin plasters”, hence the name. It and other members of the Pyrolaceae have evergreen leaves, remaining green even under the winter snows, which provides the group’s common name of wintergreens.