Herbal tea has long been associated with rebellion in America. Hippies, beatniks, and jazz musicians all steeped their movements in herbed beverages. Contrary to popular belief, however, herbal disobedience is not a recent invention. More than two centuries ago, when black tea became the lightning rod for America’s first popular rebellion, patriotic hostesses served a native-grown alternative in the salons of Boston and Philadelphia. Later nonconformists enjoyed the same tea as they struck into the great western wilderness. The mutinous shrub was Labrador tea (Ledum groenlandicum). Few herbs can boast such impeccable revolutionary credentials.
• Recipe: Traditional Labrador Tea Mix
“Lab tea” figured in my own Pacific Northwest pioneer heritage and was a part of Northwest culture well into this century. Old Puget Sounders declare: “I laughed at the Depression—lived like a king on Labrador tea and clams!” Sitting by the fire on a blustery February day, sipping a steamy cup of the pungent golden brew, it’s easy to see why it symbolized well-being and self-sufficiency in times past.
As the common and botanical names suggest, European explorers encountered L. groenlandicum in their earliest voyages to the New World; they found the plant growing in both Greenland and Labrador in eastern Canada. When European settlers arrived, Woodland tribes in eastern North America were already infusing the leathery leaves of this and the similar northern Labrador tea (L. palustre subsp. decumbens) for medicinal purposes, but white settlers appear to have been the first to use them as a beverage. Some even used the leaves to brew beer.
Labrador tea’s western adventures are harder to document. Pioneers encountered well-established tea bogs in the trans-Mississippi territories, and early historians assumed that natives in those regions had invented the practice of infusing the leaves. Scholars now speculate, however, that tea-loving mountain men intentionally seeded bogs throughout the West, Johnny-Appleseed fashion, and introduced their tea-drinking habit to the western tribes. Some Native American herbalists agree, pointing to oral traditions that count Labrador tea among the “blanket man’s” innovations. This is a rare example of Europeans’ teaching natives to use a North American herb, then natives’ passing these techniques back to white settlers.
Academics also disagree on Labrador tea’s pharmacological effects. Warnings in the literature range from judicious reminders that Labrador tea may be harmful in large quantities to ludicrous claims that the stuff will kill you. Plant guidebooks have fingered Labrador tea for causing both constipation and loose bowels, insomnia and drowsiness. The sterner warnings may stem from the fact that Labrador will poison stock animals if they ingest entire stands of it. Documented cases of Labrador tea poisoning in humans are rare.
Lewis J. Clark, in Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest (Gray’s, 1976), comments: “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.” This would seem to be the case in the hinterlands of western Canada, where the drink is still popular and apparently causes no ill effects. For years, I have savored about a dozen cups of Lab tea per week and have yet to experience the mildest side effect. This is more than I can say for black, catnip, or chamomile tea.
Plants of the genus Ledum have a variety of interesting applications. Pacific Northwest natives value a strong leaf tonic as a blood purifier and treatment for rheumatism. Tribes farther north use the same infusion to combat cold symptoms. They also marinate strong meats in it. In Alaska, Labrador tea has been used to treat stomach ailments, hangovers, and dizziness, as well as pulmonary disorders including tuberculosis. Elsewhere, infusions have been used as a wash to soothe itching rashes including poison ivy, sores, burns, lice, and leprosy. The tannin in the leaves has been used to tan hides.
Three species are native to North America. All are used in tea. Northern Labrador tea (L. palustre subsp. decumbens), a subarctic form, is smaller than L. groenlandicum but is otherwise similar. Trapper’s tea (L. glandulosum), common in the Far West, is the species whose use as tea is most controversial. Some authorities claim it’s highly poisonous. Others note that native communities in the Rockies continue to appreciate tea made from this herb. Although the ranges of Labrador tea and trapper’s tea overlap, there is little likelihood of confusion. The latter prefers drier, mountainous terrain, and its oval leaves are mealy white underneath. Wary tea lovers should stick to the yellow-furred lowland species, L. groenlandicum and L. palustre subsp. decumbens.
Labrador tea grows in thick, knee- to waist-high banks in lowland bogs across northern North America. The shrub’s evergreen foliage resembles that of a rhododendron, and some taxonomists have thought the resemblance so close that they assigned the Labrador teas to the genus Rhododendron. The narrowly elliptical, leathery leaves are dark green, rusting to magenta with age, and roll under at the edges. Yellow fur covering the underside of the leaves and their powerful, lemony aroma when crushed make identification a snap. In fact, your nose is likely to be the first to discover the plants after you unwittingly step on some.
Labrador tea’s heady fragrance and its showy clusters of small white blossoms on the branch tips in May through August are a welcome addition to the garden—if you can provide a suitable habitat. As a bog plant, it demands a very wet medium that is spongy and highly acidic, yet it will smother in saturated soil. I recommend using sphagnum or peat moss bedding, both of which are widely available. Labrador tea, hardy to Zone 2, prefers full sun; in shade, the foliage becomes leggy and sparse. Plants are best propagated by root division in late fall. Gardeners able to meet its needs will find Labrador tea a novel and resilient member of the bog community.
Though the foliage of Labrador tea may be harvested year round, spring’s bright new leaves produce the most flavorful tea. Beware of poisonous look-alikes such as bog rosemary (Andromeda polifolia) and bog laurel (Kalmia polifolia), which may snake up through a clump of Labrador tea. Choose only woolly fragrant leaves, and avoid the impostors.
Pick healthy leaves into a cloth bag and hang it indoors for a week or so. The leaves retain their color, shape, and flexibility and may not appear “dried” even months later. Store the leaves whole, and then chop them as fine as commercial loose tea when you’re ready for tea.
Tea brewed from Labrador tea alone is palatable but somewhat bland. For this reason, the pioneers added flavor by blending the leaves with those of other foraged plants. Eventually, each household developed its own distinctive recipe. A visit to the neighbors’ became an opportunity to sample their house blend and compare notes.
Rose hips lend a tangy bite and a hearty shot of vitamin C to Labrador tea blends. The sour leaves of wood sorrels (Oxalis acetosella, O. stricta, and other species) also sharpen the flavor. Though varieties of wood sorrel are sold as “shamrocks” in supermarkets around St. Patrick’s Day, wild ones are free for the picking in the forest or even in your yard. The oxalic acid in the leaves may upset your stomach if consumed in large quantities, but a handful of the dried leaves is enough to season a large batch of Labrador tea mix.
Some British Columbia native communities produce a mildly anise-flavored blend by steaming Labrador tea leaves with the roots of licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza), a common fern of the Pacific coast from Alaska to California. The leaves and flowers of anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) are an acceptable substitute, as are anise seeds.
Wild ginger and mint, both common in moist woodlands, complement Lab tea’s spicy bouquet. In the absence of wild ginger, dried gingerroot may be substituted. Other useful store-bought spices include cloves, stick cinnamon, and nutmeg; dried orange and lemon peel lend both color and flavor. Folks in the backwoods cut black tea half-and-half with Lab tea to stretch an expensive staple and produce a pleasant blend of flavors.
Always verify the identity of any wild herb destined for your stomach. Thoroughly dry all of the ingredients, as any moisture will cause the whole thing to mold. To retain as much flavor as possible, store the dried ingredients in jars with tight-fitting lids away from sunlight. Wait until you’re ready to make tea, then mince everything finely to coax as much flavor as possible into the cup. Make strong infusions by steeping for 10 minutes or longer.
A finely tuned Labrador tea mix is as close to getting something for nothing as I’ve come yet. Because my own house blend comes down from territorial days, I neither buy nor cultivate most of the ingredients. I find partaking of nature’s largesse in this fashion both spiritually and financially rewarding. In my area, Labrador tea grows abundantly, and I’m careful not to overharvest. I browse like a deer, taking several leaves off a plant and moving on to another rather than stripping any plant bare. A winter’s supply of my blend costs me about three dollars. The return on my miserly investment is a tasty, custom-made beverage and the psychological boost I get from the independence it represents. And generations of rugged individualists smile over my shoulder every time I pour myself a cup.
• Greenworld, 1415 W. Simpson Ave., Montesano, WA 98563. No catalog.
• Orchid Gardens, 2232 139th Ave. NW, Andover, MN 55304. Catalog $1.
• Roslyn Nursery, 211 Burris Ln., Dix Hills, NY 11746. Catalog $3.
Robert Henderson is a writer in Olympia, Washington, who combines his interest in history, folklore, and research. He inherited both the tradition of brewing Labrador tea and a streak of rugged Western individualism.