Gaultheria sinensis is a small shrub whose slender stems creep along the ground under the weight of their fruits. These last are larger than the plant’s leaves (about 1.5 cm wide by 2.5 cm long), and can vary in colour from white to pale shades of blue and pink. Plants grow to little more than 5 cm high, but may spread widely.
Like most members of the rhododendron family (Ericaceae), 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. As can be seen in the photograph, these lobes close around the capsule without becoming sealed. Cultivated plants probably originate from seed collected in Upper Burma (Myanmar) by Frank Kingdon-Ward. The plant grows readily in Vancouver in a partially shaded and not-too-dry peat bed, and requires no winter protection here.
About 130 species of Gaultheria (now including the former Pernettya) occur widely throughout both hemispheres, though not in Europe. Europeans first encountered Gaultheria species in settlements in eastern North America, where Gaultheria procumbens, a plant somewhat larger than Gaultheria sinensis, was valued in medicinal teas by the native peoples. This species, known as wintergreen, became important as a source of oil useful as an analgesic, applied externally to sore muscles of people or horses. The principal active ingredient, methyl salicylate, has a characteristic odour recognizable to anyone who has applied embrocation to strained muscles (modern preparations use synthetic material).
One of Linnaeus’s students, Per Kalm, visited British and French colonies in North America and was doubtless shown Gaultheria procumbens by his host in Québec, the King’s Physician and official botanist Jean-Francois Gaultier (variously written Gaulthier, etc.). Kalm forwarded specimens to his professor with the suggestion for the name. Linnaeus also honoured Kalm by naming after him another genus of ericaceous shrubs he collected in North America.