Labrador Tea History

The grandmother of herbal teas.

| February/March 1997

  • Pottery by Sumi Dick, Trimblecourt Artisans, Fort Collins, Colorado
    This mountain man’s tea is made from a blend of ingredients gathered largely in the wild.
  • Dense growths of Labrador tea are found in lowland bogs in the Pacific Northwest.
    Photograph by Robert K. Henderson

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.

A Toxic Tradition?

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.

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