Autumn is arriving locally, with cooler weather, changing colours, and ripe fruits. I am slowly building up my collection of photographs of the latter. This image is from last year’s collection trip with the folks from Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the Howick Hall Gardens of Northumberland.
Gaultheria has been featured twice before on Botany Photo of the Day, with the Argentinian & Chilean Gaultheria mucronata and the southeast Asian Gaultheria sinensis. Gaultheria ovatifolia is western North American, a representative of the third of four continents where one can find the genus (the last being Australasia).
As noted in the Gaultheria sinensis entry by the late Ian Gillam,
…the ovary of the flower develops into a dry capsule containing numerous tiny seeds. As it matures, the ovary in this and most other species of Gaultheria becomes enveloped in the fleshy outgrowth of the calyx lobes, forming the coloured part of the fruit…these lobes close around the capsule without becoming sealed.
This phenomenon is visible in the uppermost fruit in today’s photograph; the swollen red calyx jackets a dry capsule. Astute eyes will even notice seeds starting to burst out along the capsule’s lines of dehiscence (seams)–a perfectly ripe fruit for collection.
While a number of fruits were collected, some were also sampled for taste–a subtle candy flavour. This would be in part due to the presence of methyl salicylate, which in low concentrations is used to flavour mints and chewing gum. Be aware of the effects on humans in high concentrations, though, as the compound can be fatal.
Gaultheria ovatifolia is known as western teaberry, slender wintergreen, or Oregon wintergreen. The Flora of North America has a scientific description of Gaultheria ovatifolia. More western teaberry photographs are available from the Burke Museum’s image database.