Gaultheria berries, some are good to eat

by Ciaran Burke
Gaultheria berries with yogurt

Gaultheria berries with yogurt

Some G. mucronata berries are quite tasty with some home made yogurt and brown sugar! Or enjoy them as a nice treat when in the garden. It is great to be able to pick a handful of berries and munch them while taking a break from weeding in the garden.

The small, narrow, dark evergreen foliage is densely packed along the stems, each little leaf ending with a short spine.  Masses of small white nodding flowers are produced in May, creating a cloud of soft white over the branches. In winter plump berries replace flowers, decorating pots and borders.

The berries remain on the plant for such a long time, already on show in September they will be looking good right through winter until late spring. Like marbles, they clutter the stems, the colour range from white to mulberry-purple. Named cultivars are sometimes offered for sale but more usually they are just sold incorrectly labelled as pernettya.

Gaultheria mucronata -red

The flowers of P. mucronata are dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers are borne on different plants. This is important to know if you expect to have berries on your plants.

One male plant should be sufficient for a group of  about 8 female plants. A low growing male cultivar called ‘Thymifolia’ is a good choice as a pollinator especially where a neater growth habit is favoured. There is a hermaphrodite plant which produces bright carmine-red berries called ‘Bell’s Seedling’ which is an Irish cultivar. One solitary plant can produce berries without the need for the company of a pollinator.

The edibility of Gaultheria mucronata berries is a subject clouded in confusion, with some texts stating that all members of the genus have poisonous berries.  I have eaten them, enjoyed them, and survived!

It is known that South American natives have valued the berries for their taste and health benefits.  The texture of the flesh is somewhat watery and the skin dryish, but it is not unpleasant at all. Recently I was tasting some of the berries in our garden, a friend was with me and we noticed that berries from one bush in particular had a far stronger and better taste than the others, while another had no taste at all. Selection of individuals for their flavour is something that could be worked on. What is quite amazing is how long the fruits stay and remain good quality onthe plants, from autumn until now in March.

Gaultheria mucronata - deep pink

Gaultheria mucronata - deep pink

Let the fruit ripen well so that the flesh is soft when gently squeezed. Be careful though, plants offered for sale are usually grown as ornamentals and not grown as fruit plants. Due to this fact there may be insecticides incorporated with the compost. Whether or not the plants have been treated with pesticides should be confirmed first before tasting the berries.

G. mucronata which hails from Chile and Argentina, was relatively unknown to gardeners from its introduction in the 1830s until plants raised by the Co. Down nurseryman T.Davis of Hillsborough were exhibited in London in 1882 and attracted attention. He showed plants which he had raised and selected over the previous 30 years. Sadly most of these cultivars are probably lost to gardeners of today but there are many others to choose from. They require acid soil, they are ideal for ground cover or can make attractive outdoor pot plants.

This text is an extract from an article (edible ornamental berries)  in the current issue of Organic Matters, the magazine of IOFGA (Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association) available in news agents countrywide.

Gaultheria mucronata -white

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