Gaultheria or Pernettya?

Gaultheria procumbens, Wintergreen or Checkerberry with bright red berries
© Karen Netto (Andrews)

Gaultheria and Pernettya are two shrubs to be found side by side in garden centres in the run-up to Christmas. Their profusion of berries stand out in a range of colours: red, white and shocking pink. On investigation, I discovered that they are one and the same genus. This is yet another of those botanical name changes that have not found their way consistently into garden centres. As ever, I enjoyed looking into the origin of the plant names and personalities behind them.

Gaultier

The initial search for Gaultheria sent me on a wild goose chase. I found that the surname took me from France to the USA, Quebec, and Canada more generally. I discovered that the bearers of this surname had the utmost difficulty in spelling their name with consistency (Gaultier, Gautier, Gauthier and Gaulthier). I ruled out artists and fashion designers, before coming across Jean-François Gaultier (1708-56) in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. In an age when botany and medicine were frequently practised together, our M. Gaultier was recognised as both a physician and naturalist. He had connections to the famous French botanists Jussieu and introduced Linnaean student Pehr Kalm (1716-1779) to Canadian plants.

Pernetty

The genus synonym for Gaultheria is Pernettya. It commemorates the French priest and naturalist, Antoine-Joseph Pernetty (1716-1801). He accompanied Louis-Antoine de Bougainville (1729-1811), (of botanical Bougainvillea fame), to the Falkland Islands. The short shrub Pernettya mucronata from Tierra del Fuego in Argentina’s southern-most tip was named after him. DNA analysis means that his name has been replaced. The plant is now called Gaultheria mucronata. It is commonly called Prickly Heath. Pernettya has officially been dropped, although it is still possible to find it in active use in garden centres and on French websites. The berries are poisonous if eaten in large quantities, but reported cases are rare according to Dauncey’s Poisonous Plants.

Ericaceae

Gaultheria is now a genus of 134 species in the Ericaceae or Heather family. Gaultheria procumbens, commonly known as Wintergreen, is the source of an essential oil used in drinks, chewing gum and ice cream. The leaves are used to make Wintergreen tea. We know that Gaultier encouraged the use of this tea in Canada. He recorded the ethnobotanical uses of plants by the indigenous North American and Canadian populations. Wintergreen was an important source of salicylic acid, before Aspirin was made synthetically.

The strong colours of Gaultheria mucronata become even more striking in wet weather
© Karen Netto (Andrews)

© Karen Netto (Andrews)

References and Further Reading

Boivin, Bernard (1974): Gaultier, Jean-François. Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Volume 3. University of Toronto/Université Laval. Last accessed 10 December 2019.

Christenhusz, Maarten J. M. & Fay, Michael, F. & Chase, Mark W. (2017): Plants of the World. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Vascular Plants. Kew. Chicago.

Dauncey, Elizabeth A. (2010): Poisonous Plants. A guide for parents & childcare providers. Kew. UK.

Plantlife (2019): Prickly Heath, Gaultheria mucronata. Last accessed 10 December 2019

Savours, Ann (2019): Pernetty, Antoine-Joseph (or Pernety) 1716-1801. Dictionary of Falklands Biography including South Georgia. Copyright David Tatham (2012-18). Last accessed 10 December 2019.

The Joy of Plants.co.uk (?): Prickly Heath. Foliage, flowers, berries. Last accessed 14 December 2019.

Wikipédia: Jean-François Gautier. Last accessed 10 December 2019.

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