Chimaphila umbellata is commonly called prince’s pine. Pipsissewa is a second colloquial name for this plant and for C. menziesii, another similar-looking member of the same genus. Personally I call C. umbellata prince’s pine and C. menziesii pipsissewa to avoid confusion. Though I must admit that the name pipsissewa is more fun to pronounce.
Prince’s pine is a low, erect evergreen shrubby wildflower that grows at mid-elevations and often resembles a ground cover . During the winter, prince’s pine leaves add a welcome dark green color to the understory of coniferous forests. This perennial native can be found throughout most of North America except some areas of the Plains and South.
Prince’s pine stems can be simple or branched with one or two whorls of six or seven leaves on each stem. The elliptical, leathery, shiny leaves are sharply toothed along the margin. Although not visible in the winter, the flowers are whitish to pink and are produced in loose clusters at the terminal end of the flower stalk. The round seed capsules linger on prince’s pine into the late fall or later. The four to eight capsules on each stalk are five-chambered and split along the cell mid line releasing numerous minute seeds. In addition to seeds, prince’s pine propagates by rhizomes.
Prince’s pine has an agreeable scent and flavor. The leaves and roots can be used to make a refreshing tea and in the past, if not currently, were an ingredient in root beer and candies. While along the trail the leaves, although leathery, can be nibbled raw for their pleasant taste.
Prince’s pine has been shown in recent experiments to have hypoglycemic (blood sugar reducing) and diuretic properties. Herbal practitioners often used prince’s pine to treat urinary tract infections, cancer, bladder stones, and fluid retention. Although use of prince’s pine in small amounts medicinally does not appear to cause side-effects, excessive prolonged use can cause ringing in ears, vomiting, confusion and seizures so should be used internally, if at all, with care. Native Americans used poultices or liniments of prince’s pine externally to ease sores and blisters.
Because prince’s pine has a variety of uses and is often collected for commercial purposes, this plant is disappearing in some areas.
The genus name, Chimaphila, is Greek for “winter loving” and refers to the evergreen leaves.
These prince’s pine plants, members of the heath or wintergreen family, were photographed on the Tumalo Falls Trail near Sisters OR.