Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata)

Ecology

Pipsissewa is an evergreen, so it has green leaves year-round (meaning it can complete photosynthesis throughout the year). However it also meets a substantial portion of it’s nutritional needs through symbiotic relationships with fungi that live in the soil (that is, it is a partial myco-heterotroph) around it. This makes it extremely difficult to cultivate, since the fungi it naturally grows with are needed for it to do thrive …

Cluster of Pipsissewa in a moist, shady, disturbed cedar grove ... note how it grows in clusters, low to the ground.
Cluster of Pipsissewa in a moist, shady, disturbed cedar grove … note how it grows in clusters, low to the ground. Also look at the way that the leaves meet the stem.

Nomenclature

“Pipsissewa” is a Cree name meaning “It-breaks-into-small-pieces”. This is due to it’s use as a treatment for kidney stones.

“Chimaphila” is derived from the Greek words “cheima”, for “winter” and “philos” for loving — this is due to the fact that it is an evergreen.

 

Edible Uses

* Leaves are tasty to nibble on.

* Both the leaves, and roots make a delicious tea.

* It was a primary ingredient in root beer, long ago.

Close-up of leaves -- note dark green coloration, "waxy" texture, and sharp teeth on edges. Then put them in your mouth, chew them up, and notice how tasty they are!
Close-up of leaves — note dark green coloration, “waxy” texture, and sharp teeth on edges. Then put them in your mouth, chew them up, and notice how tasty they are!

Medicinal Uses

* Pipsissewa was used as a medicine for a variety of ailments, by tribes ranging throughout N. America, and is still used today by modern “mainstream” medical practitioners.

* The Flathead and Kutenai Indians used it primarily as an eye medicine. Kutenai Indians also used a tea made from this plant for kidney trouble. [[usfs — idaho panhandle]]

Photo of stem and leaves -- once again, see how the leaves meet the stem -- note the angle at which they attach, and the way that they form a whorl around the stem. Also look at the color of the stem -- light greenish.
Photo of stem and leaves — once again, see how the leaves meet the stem — note the angle at which they attach, and the way that they form a whorl around the stem. Also look at the color of the stem — light greenish.
Side view of seed heads -- almost like miniature purple/pink pumpkins. Note the reddish stem they are attached to.
Side view of seed heads — almost like miniature purple/pink pumpkins. Note the reddish stem they are attached to.
A later photo of the seed heads, as they begin to split open ... note the blackish "button" on top. This one was taken later than the last, and the stem they are attached to is no longer red.
A later photo of the seed heads, as they begin to split open … note the blackish “button” on top. This one was taken later than the last, and the stem they are attached to is no longer red.

References / Bibliography

Also try using the full species name “Chimaphila umbellata” as a search phrase in the Native American Ethnobotany Database.