Remember as a kid, when you come back from the playground with aching limbs, and your grandmother took out her little bottle of oil of wintergreen and gave you a rub-up? The pain just disappeared. Well, wintergreen has many more qualities. It has a very high demand in the pharmaceutical industry around the world, and the quality of Meghalaya wintergreen is as good as or even better than the best in the world.
This would allow Meghalaya wintergreen to easily tap into a near-billion-dollar export market.
That tells the story of a possible golden future waiting to happen to this Northeast state of India. We’ll get to know why, but before that, let us know a little more about wintergreen.
Wintergreen is a medicinal shrub of the genus Gaultheria and there are 200 species of this. It has a very high concentration of methyl salicylate, which is an inflammation-fighting compound. Wintergreen is believed to be one of few plants that produce enough methyl salicylate for the extraction process to be economically viable. Other genus which also produce methyl salicylate are black birch (Betula), meadowsweets (Spiraea) and Polygala.
What is methyl salicylate? Methyl salicylate is the compound that forms the base for popular over-the-counter medicine such as Aspirin® and other compounds which have high demand from the pharmaceutical industry.
Currently Gaultheria procumbens, also known as American wintergreen, is the primary source of wintergreen oil.
The Big Market
In 2015, India exported wintergreen and other oils and resinoids to countries ranging from Germany, Romania and other European countries to the US and China, amounting to a staggering US $695.60 million. And this was after a steep fall in the export figure from earlier years where exports had peaked at USD 1.5 billion (2012).
Given the essential nature of the export, these figures could rise, yet again. Also, if one factors in the quality of Meghalaya wintergreen, it has the potential to leapfrog a lot of other sources of wintergreen in the country into the export basket.
The quality of Meghalaya wintergreen is what should catch the fancy of the importers around the world. Though Gaultheria procumbens has a methyl salicylate content of approximately between 90 and 98 percent, it comes short when compared to the variety found in Meghalaya.
A study by the National Medicinal Plants Board (NMPB) reveals that wintergreen found in Meghalaya contains ~3.0% of oil, and post chemical analysis was found to contain more than 99.0% methyl salicylate.
Chemical composition of wintergreen oil from Meghalaya
The high altitude and conducive climatic conditions of Meghalaya make wintergreen from this region far more superior in comparison to the ones grown in other parts of the world.
Zizira’s explorers are on a discovery surge, exploring the unique produce of Northeast India. In the process, they are opening up markets for the farming majority of the region. During one of our recent meetings with Dr A.A Mao of Botanical Survey of India, Shillong, we came face to face with wintergreen (Gaultheria fragrantissima).
Dr Mao pointed out: “Wintergreen grows abundantly in Meghalaya, mostly wild. When crushed, it gives out a strong fragrance. It can be used to relieve pain. We can extract essential oil from it and the quality of oil from the ones found in Meghalaya is much superior to others.”
A Traditional Medicine
On further research, we found out that this very plant has been in use by our ancestors to treat body ache and even migraines. Known as “La thynriat” by the Khasi tribe of Meghalaya, this medicinal plant is also simmered and used for bathing infants for healthy bone structure and growth.
Worldwide, though, wintergreen is said to have been a native American produce, even discovered by native Americans from way back in the past and used for its medicinal purposes. It seems now that this wasn’t a plant unique to the Americas. The people of Northeast India had been using this for ages as well.
The Health Benefits of Wintergreen
The aromatic leaves of wintergreen contain essential oils which:
- Reduces swelling and irritation
- Clears skin irritation
- Fights inflammation
- Relieves pain
- Treats colds, fevers and infections
- Improves digestion
Owing to its strong mint-like fragrance, it is also used as an ingredient for perfumes and insect repellents.
Extraction of Wintergreen Oil
Like any other oil formulations, wintergreen oil gives the best result when it is 100% pure. How would you know? In pure form, it has a pale yellow color, unlike the artificial or adulterated ones which are at times blue or even green.
Wintergreen oil is extracted from the leaves by steeping them in warm water. This allows the enzymes to produce methyl salicylate which is the primary constituent. Once done, the solution will give out a strong mint-like aroma due to the leaf enzymes getting hydrolyzed. This solution can then be concentrated into an extract through steam distillation.
Though the whole process seems fascinating, however, be wary that pure wintergreen oil (concentrated methyl salicylate) is extremely toxic. So it is not recommended to make your own infusion at home. Instead, look for a diluted product which is ready for you to use.
Wintergreen and Farmers of Northeast India
Zizira wishes to create markets for the farmers of Northeast India. And with such green gold available, at the bountiful landscape of the region, tapping into this huge export market is just a matter of time. Considering its quality, it has the potential to beat to the tape any comparable wintergreen that is now in the export market.
Now if a farmer were to consider growing wintergreen, here’s a quick look at the logistics and man-hours required:
|Growing conditions||Temperate climate. Grows well under both full and partial shading.|
|Soil type||Sandy and loamy soils|
|Seed germination||Seeds germinate in a months’ time at a temperature of around 20˚C|
|Harvest months||June to November|
|Man hours required||24 – 26 man hours for 250 Kg raw herbage|
|Raw herbage to oil ratio||250 Kg : 1 Ltr of wintergreen oil|
NOTE: High doses of wintergreen oil can be toxic, so it is advisable to avoid overusing wintergreen oil or applying it to your skin directly. Methyl salicylate can have a severe effect on open wounds, on babies or children and to anyone with allergies. So, do exert caution while using or handling wintergreen oil.