What is Chimaphila?

Alex Tree

Chimaphila is a genus classification given to five flowering plant species in the plant family Ericaceae. These plants are often referred to as wintergreens or evergreens. Unlike most plants thriving in the northern hemisphere that eventually lose their leaves during the autumn and winter seasons, these particular plants continue to have distinctively green leaves all year round. In fact, the genus name Chimaphila comes from the Greek words cheima, meaning winter, and philos, meaning lover.

A soft drink containing chimaphila.
A soft drink containing chimaphila.

One type of plant classified under this genus is Chimaphila umbellata. More commonly referred to as prince pine, this wintergreen flowering plant is found growing in dry woodlands, usually underneath large conifer trees. It is a small plant, growing up to 14 inches (35 cm) in height. Apart from the United States and Canada, the prince pine is also found in certain regions of Europe and Asia, where its roots are used as an herbal remedy to treat a variety of ailments, including tuberculosis. Today, this evergreen is used as a flavoring agent for some types of candy and soft drinks.

One type of Chimaphila, the prince pine, grows underneath large conifer trees.
One type of Chimaphila, the prince pine, grows underneath large conifer trees.

Another evergreen classified under this genus is the Chimaphila maculata. It gets its common name, striped wintergreen, from the distinctive striped markings on its leaves, which are brought about by the almost white-colored veins contrasting against the dark green color of its leaves. Just like the prince pine, the striped wintergreen is usually found in dry woodlands where conifers and oak trees also thrive. They grow slightly smaller than prince pine, usually no taller than 10 inches (25 cm). As of 2010, the striped evergreen is endangered, particularly in Ontario and Quebec in Canada and in the northeastern parts of the United States.

A smaller but similar plant species to the Chimaphila maculata is the Chimaphila japonica, or Japanese wintergreen. As its name implies, this evergreen plant is found in Japan. Its stems are just 4 inches (10 cm) in length. The Japanese wintergreen has broad, lance-shaped leaves, each measuring about 1.5 inches (4 cm) in length.

Yet another type of evergreen that falls under this classification is Chimaphila menziesii. This particular flowering plant is mostly found in conifer forests located between 2,500 and 8,000 feet (760 and 2,500 m) above sea level in the western part of North America. It also thrives in certain parts of Canada and Mexico. The Chimaphila menziesii is often called the little prince pine because it closely resembles the prince pine evergreen plant. Its roots are used as an herbal remedy to improve blood circulation by some Indian tribes.

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