Robert K. Henderson
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Freelance Writer, Editor, Translator,
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Subherbs: Foraging for "Wild" Herbs in Your Own Backyard Food and medicine from common weeds and ornamentals.
Labrador Tea Rediscovering an important part of our herbal heritage.
Brass Under Fire: World War II Army Signalmen in the Amateur Radio Service Hams who answered the call.
Real Men Drink Tea Hold on to your boxers, brothers! Tea's back for a rematch.
On other sites:
Foraging in Residential Areas is my overview on collecting wild edibles in urban and suburban settings, available from Herbsearch.com.
(Originally appeared in Pacific Horticulture.)
Copyright 2001 by Robert K. Henderson
Labrador tea's modest appearance belies its high profile in North America's herbal heritage. Infusions of this hardy bog dweller's aromatic, evergreen foliage have comforted backwoodsmen since the earliest European explorations. Following the Boston Tea Party, fashionable colonial hostesses served Labrador tea as a democratic alternative to imported teas. Until recently the pungent yellow brew was common in the Pacific Northwest, where some Native communities continue to appreciate it to this day.
The photograph depicts L. groenlandicum, or bog Labrador tea. As its Latin name suggests, this was one of the first New World herbs European botanists catalogued. Labrador tea grows in peaty lowland bogs across the continent, ranging on the west coast from northwest Oregon to subarctic Alaska. While individual plants can reach four feet under ideal conditions, typical height is about half that. The shrub resembles an azalea in shape and size. The leathery, narrowly elliptical leaves are dark green to rust on the upper surface and turned under at the margins, alternating up the stem to form closely-spaced whorls at the ends. Clusters of white flowers in showy terminal corymbs appear from May to August, depending on local conditions. The fruit is a bead-like, five-chambered capsule. A unique characteristic of L. groenlandicum is the presence of saffron-colored wool on the underside of the leaves. This unusual trait, together with the spicy, citrusy fragrance the leaves and twigs release when crushed, makes it easy to identify. Bog Labrador tea usually grows in thick banks, dominating its habitat, and is difficult to overlook.
Ledum species are found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Wild rosemary (L. palustre) occurs in boreal Europe and Siberia. L. groenlandicum is technically a subspecies of L. palustre, as is northern Labrador tea (L. [palustre] decumbens), which occurs in southeast Alaska and northern British Columbia. Trapper's tea (L. glandulosum) is found in the Cascades, the Northwest interior and Oregon, and can be distinguished from other Ledums by its oval leaves, which are mealy white or gray underneath and non-lanate.
The humble Ledums have attracted more than their share of controversy among horticulturalists. Indeed, their very existence as a genus is disputed; some taxonomists argue that these plants are really rhododendrons. In fact, as recently as 1995 squabbling among rhododendron enthusiasts prompted the Royal Horticultural Society to issue a formal statement reasserting its position that Ledum is a separate genus.
Authorities also disagree on the origins of Labrador tea as a beverage. Some support the natural assumption that Native Americans invented this practice. Many Native herbalists refute this, however, claiming that trappers not only taught their forebears to infuse the leaves, but introduced L. groenlandicum itself to the West, Johnny Appleseed-style. If so, this is a novel episode in history, wherein immigrants taught natives to use a plant found wild in the new land. Whatever the truth may be, both Natives and mountain men were mixing Labrador tea leaves with other ingredients to brew tea when settlement of the West began.
A more serious consideration is the confusion over the pharmacological effects of Labrador tea. The literature contains warnings such as "known to be toxic," "possesses narcotic properties" and even the flat, "Labrador tea is poisonous." These remarks (particularly the last) clearly exaggerate the potential danger. Thousands of people have steeped Labrador tea leaves in hot water and ingested the result. I consume about twenty-seven gallons of the stuff in the course of a year, though rarely more than one oversized cup in any twenty-four hour period. I have yet to experience the slightest side effect. Not that diagnosis is easy; Labrador tea has been variously identified as a cathartic and an anticathartic, a stimulant and a depressant. While the Ledums are in fact known to be poisonous to livestock, Lewis J. Clark's conclusions in Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest are probably most accurate:
Ledol, a toxic compound that can induce cramps and paralysis, has been isolated from the leaves of all the Ledum species. Possibly in the low concentrations of the pioneers' brew, this substance may have produced restorative effects similar to those resulting from the caffeine in tea.
Ledums contribute appealing evergreen foliage and sprays of fresh white blossoms to bog gardens and places where soggy ground makes it difficult to establish other species. Care must be taken to provide them with a spongy medium resembling their natural bedding, as they will suffocate in saturated soil.
Few shrubs have played such a colorful role in our history. Though Labrador tea has largely slipped into obscurity, horticulturists may take pleasure in correcting this oversight.
Copyright 2002 by Robert K. Henderson