Gaultheria or Pernettya?

Gaultheria procumbens, Wintergreen or Checkerberry with bright red berries
© Karen 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.


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.


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.


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 Andrews

© Karen Andrews

References and Further Reading

Copyright Note

Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.

© Karen Andrews 2018 onwards. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Andrews and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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