Labrador Tea

Plant Use(es):Food, Medicinal

Flowers and leaves - Photo by Daniel Mosquin

Flowers and leaves – Photo by Daniel Mosquin

Underside of old leaf - Photo by Daniel Mosquin

Underside of old leaf – Photo by Daniel Mosquin

Underside of new leaf - Photo by Daniel Mosquin

Underside of new leaf – Photo by Daniel Mosquin

Other common names: swamp tea, Haida tea, Hudson’s Bay tea, Indian tea

Scientific name: Rhododendron groenlandicum (Oeder) Kron & Judd

Family name: Ericaceae (heather family)

PLANT DESCRIPTION

A bush that starts out quite straggly and grows to be a dense 50-200cm tall plant. The flowers are white and in dense clusters with brown woody seed capsules.

FOOD AND MEDICINAL USES

As the name implies, Indigenous people across North America used the aromatic leaves to make a tea, as did European explorers and settlers when they arrived to Canada. The plant is prepared and collected in various ways, depending on the group of people who are interacting with the plant. The Haida picked the young leaves in the spring before the arrival of flowers, although more would be picked in the summer as well. The Nuxalk and Comox preferred the old leaves when they were reddish-brown in late winter before the new leaves sprouted. The plant was used both fresh and dried in the sun, or today, in a bag over the stove.

To make the tea, the Comox people steamed it with other plants such as the Licorce Fern rhizomes (for flavor) in a shallow pit until the leaves became very dark. To store, they were placed in cedar boxes for storage and when needed, steeped a handful in a pot with some water and boiled it. The Haida people enjoyed Labrador tea quite strong, and would steep it for days, until the tea was a dark colour. Today, sugar is added to the tea, although it does not need sugar or cream.

Many communities used it for medicinal purposes, to help with colds, sore throats, heat medicine, indigestion.  Some Secwepemc people believed that in large quantities, Labrador tea could counteract the effects of poison ivy. It has been noted that it was also given to mothers after giving birth for relaxation and to ease pain.

General disclaimer: It is recommended that individuals seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally. The University of British Columbia is not responsible for any adverse effects that might result from the use of this plant.

INTERESTING POINTS

  • According to Turner (1997), it is possible that Labrador tea only began being used as a tea after European contact. Her reasoning for this is because in many areas it is known only as Hudson’s Bay tea, and if an Aboriginal name does exist it is one with more recent origins. Turner (1997) states “the Saanich know it only as swamp tea, and the Haida call it xaaydaa tiigaa (Haida Tea), an English borrowing” (p. 80).
  • It should be noted that there are two plants, glandular Labrador tea and swamp laurel, which are closely related to this species but are known to be quite toxic and in concentrated have killed livestock. Both the two toxic plants have similar characteristics as Ledum groenlandicum, but do not have the characteristic fuzz on the underside of the leaves.
  • An non academic source of uses of Labrador tea is noted in this magazine article, such as putting it in your closet to deter against moths.  http://www.bcliving.ca/garden/labrador-tea

LOCATION IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST

Quite common in suitable habitat of peat bogs, muskegs and wet mountain meadows.

LOCATION IN UBC

Unknown

 For information on Labrador tea visit E-Flora:

http://linnet.geog.ubc.ca/Atlas/Atlas.aspx?sciname=Rhododendron%20groenlandicum&redblue=Both&lifeform=3

 

 

SOURCES

Turner, N. J., & Royal British Columbia Museum. (1997). Food plants of interior first peoples. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Turner, N. J., & Royal British Columbia Museum. (1995). Food plants of coastal first peoples. Vancouver: UBC Press.

 Photo credits

Daniel Mosquin. UBC Botanical Gardens. Retrieved via email in November, 2013.

Link to e-flora

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