Plant is in-between being a shrub and an herb

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The other day I was fiddling around on the internet, and I found a real blast from the past. Maybe you, like me, remember this particular kind of chewing gum called "teaberry." "Clark's Teaberry," to be precise. The ad on TV for this product featured a little dance that the flavorful gum inspired in its chewers, and of course that was the "Teaberry Shuffle." So '60s! I was reminded also that the music was actually performed by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. The gum had a sweet sort of wintergreen flavor, quite nice as I recall. But I don't chew gum anymore as a rule, and I don't think they make that stuff these days.

This week's mystery plant is in fact called Teaberry, so no mystery there. It is an odd little plant that botanists like to call a "subshrub," which can be translated as "sort of a shrub." Now, a shrub is a woody plant, but our mysterious Teaberry doesn't feature much woody tissue but enough that it isn't really an "herb." It's in-between being a shrub and an herb. Growing on the forest floor, it does in fact appear to be herbaceous, never getting more than a few inches tall.

Teaberry is classified as a member of the heath family, or Ericaceae, a group of plants which are mostly woody, shrubs and trees. "Heath" of course, doesn't grow too much down here in the South, so you may be more familiar with the Ericaceae as the blueberry family, which also gives us rhododendrons, huckleberries, sourwood and mountain-laurel.

Although Teaberry plants are small, it's a handsome species. The leaves are bright green and somewhat tough, smooth and more or less football-shaped. The leaves are clustered near the top of the stem, and that's where it produces its few flowers. They will be sort of hidden under the leaves, and you might need to get on your hands and knees to see them. There will be five white petals, fused into a tube. After blooming, a flower will produce a single, swollen berry, bright red and conspicuous. The berries are edible and tasty. I've sampled these a few times. The taste is a bit like wintergreen. For that matter, the rest of the plant is too, and if you chew on the leaves or stem, you'll get the same sweet flavor that the berry offers.

As far as the chewing gum, its inspiration apparently came from Teaberry. The production of the gum would have had to involve experimenting with a variety of flavors but really couldn't have come directly from the plant. That is, Teaberry wasn't harvested by the truckload in order to make the chewing gum.

This species is widespread in North America from eastern to central Canada, and then south all the way to Alabama and Georgia. It likes to grow in forests that biologists like to call acidic, meaning that the chemistry of the soil there is on the low side of the pH sale, thus acidic.

Answer: "Teaberry," Gaultheria procumbens

John Nelson is the curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia SC 29208. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org, call (803) 777-8196 or email nelson@sc.edu.