Curious plants: Drimys winteri

Drimys winteri (winter’s bark) is native to Central and South America. In its native habitat it is described as a “slender tree that can grown up to 20m”. The RHS describes it only as “higher than 12m” and taking 20 to 50 years to reach ultimate height.

Its fame comes from its Vitamin C-rich bark which was used for centuries to cure scurvy in sailors, a fact stumbled on by Captain William John Winter, a doctor and the commander of the Elizabeth on the 1577-80 circumnavigation by Sir Francis Drake (five ships took part) when the ships were in the Straits of Magellan. [The alterations have been made in response to a comment from a descendant of Captain Winter.]

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Drimerys winterii at Looking Glass Garden near Te Puke. The tree flowers from early spring into summer. Photo: Sandra Simpson


He was shown how to make “tea” from the bark in Patagonia – during the long winters when no fresh fruit or vegetables were available locals ate the bark. (You have to wonder what drove them to that in the first place, don’t you?)

It was apparently also used by explorer Captain James Cook, along with other things, to keep his crew safe from the fatal disease on his late 18th century voyages. A drawing by Joseph Banks appears in his Endeavour Journal 1768-71 (Vol 1).

Drimys winteri needs a sheltered frost-free spot.


2 thoughts on “Curious plants: Drimys winteri

  1. Drimys winteri was name after Capt John Winter of the ship Elizabeth who accompanied Drake on his circumnavigation *not* Doctor William Winter. This is an error perpetuated by those who haven’t researched English historical documents. Admiral Sir William Winter, Surveyor of the Navy to Queen Elizabeth 1 was the captain’s *uncle* with whom he fought in the battle against the Spanish Armada in 1588. Capt. John Winter’s father was Sir George Winter of Dyrham who was brother to Admiral Sir William Winter and they both funded Drake’s journey together with Drake and the Queen. Capt. John Winter lost sight of Drake’s ship, the Golden Hind in a terrible storm off the Straits of Magellen and returned to England instead. He found that the bark of Drimys, which was made into a brew and given to his crew, was effective against that scourge of the Navy, i.e scurvy, etc. Historians and Winter family researchers know this very well. Please see Wikipedia and numerous other sites.

    • Thanks for the information Anne, I stand corrected (I am neither an historian nor a Winter family researcher but just someone interested in plants). It takes only one website for the incorrect fact to be perpetuated and that’s what has happened here. It’s so nice of you to take the time to offer the correction – I will update the text and refer to this comment. I always hope that Sandra’s Garden can be safely used by those seeking information and you have now helped in this endeavour. I tend not to rely on Wikipedia too much because one never knows who is writing the text, who is editing it or why. (Hope you don’t mind but I have taken the liberty of adding punctuation and corrected some spelling in your comment. It appears you may have been writing in haste.)
      All the best,

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