Grow this hardy and aromatic shrub throughout British Columbia and harvest its leaves for a refreshing traditional brew
Coffee and tea are served everywhere today, yet before the arrival of Europeans, neither beverage was known to North Americans. However, many “teas” made from native species, usually for medicinal purposes, have long been brewed by First Nations people. Among the most widely used plants in Canada was Labrador tea, Ledum groenlandicum, a relative of the ornamental rhododendrons in the heather family (Ericaceae). Since writing about this great shrub several years ago, I have become even more convinced of its suitability for the garden.
Labrador tea forms a medium-sized, many-stemmed shrub, and its height varies widely from site to site. In British Columbia’s inland wetlands, plants reach scarcely half a metre, whereas our province’s southern coastal climate nurtures clumps that grow up to two metres tall.
Whorls of narrow, leathery leaves crowd the ends of the branches. The upper surface of the shrub’s small (2.5- to six-centimetre) deep-green leaves is smooth, while the bottom side is densely covered in woolly white to rusty-orange hairs. Leaf edges curl under in a distinctive manner. These leaf attributes combine to help the plant to conserve water. (Paradoxically, though this shrub grows in wetlands, it has difficulty absorbing the acidic waters.) Flowers and leaves both release a sweetly spicy scent when crushed.
The plant’s bright-white flower clusters burst from prominent scaly buds at the branch ends as early as May in the south and as late as August in the north. Each flower is small, scarcely a centimetre across, but in a mass the blooms form a very showy flowerhead. Within each bloom five petals surround five to 10 stamens and a small pistil. These flowers are soon replaced by sticky new leaves. Tiny light seeds form in a dry capsule, as in rhododendrons, and are released late in the year.
Throughout British Columbia, Labrador tea loves the wet acid environment of bogs and conifer swamps, particularly where peat moss (Sphagnum) forms mats and hummocks. In the north, low-growing Labrador tea shrubs populate acid mountain meadows, too. The plant’s natural range includes all of northern North America from Alaska to Greenland, and as far south as Oregon on the west coast.
B.C.’s First Nations inhabitants used Labrador tea leaves for many purposes. First, it was (and it remains) an important plant for making a refreshing tea. Across Canada, the traditional preparation involved either steeping the leaves in hot water for five to 10 minutes or boiling them until the water turned light brown. The Haida made an extra-strong concoction by letting the leaves boil for several days. For a more delicate yet still tasty tea, steep the aromatic fresh new growth rather than the old leaves, which tend to release brown leaf hairs.
Tea was also prepared from the closely related trapper’s tea plant (Ledum glandulosum). This species makes a stronger brew, but experts note that it may be slightly poisonous, especially if drunk in large quantities. The leaves of trapper’s tea are easy to distinguish from those of regular Labrador tea – the former have only white hairs underneath, while Labrador tea leaves have orange hairs. Be sure to consume Labrador tea in moderation; it acts as a diuretic and makes some people drowsy. And after drinking three cups one afternoon, I can certainly testify to the ability of the tea to create a kind of altered, highly relaxed mental state.
Haida people drank the tea to treat colds and sore throats, but the plant had other uses as well. Labrador tea was placed among ears of corn to keep mice away, put in closets to protect against moths and kept in bedrooms to fend off fleas.
Despite being thought of as a bog plant, Labrador tea is an excellent shrub for moist acid soils in the garden. Basically, anywhere you can grow rhododendrons, you can grow Labrador tea, although the tea plant is much hardier than a rhodo. You can obtain plants through your local nursery or garden centre, but you will probably have to special-order them. Labrador tea can also be raised from seed sown in the fall or spring in peat pellets, or on a moist peat-based soil. Root crown division or layering will work to propagate plants too, more or less the way blueberries are moved or propagated.
Prepare a peat or humus-rich soil in a depression in your garden or plant in a naturally peaty soil as might be found at the edge of a wetland or lake. Plant the shrub deeply, burying the crown, then water well. The Labrador tea plant will thrive as long as you prevent the soil from drying during the summer. Even a regular garden bed in full sun suits Labrador tea, as long as the soil is kept relatively moist and acid. The shrub grows slowly and needs little maintenance. In the Native Plant Garden at the Royal BC Museum, Labrador tea plants have flowered profusely for 30 years in the dry summer climate of Victoria. I unintentionally transplanted a small piece to an open south-facing slope on the Saanich Peninsula, where it has survived and even blooms with a little bit of watering and lots of mulch.
So if you are searching for a native tea plant, and are willing to keep it well watered, try Labrador tea in your coastal or interior garden. This attractive and wonderfully scented shrub will grow in any spot with moist acid soil conditions, whether natural or created by a diligent gardener.
The following plants are hardy up to the zone number indicated: • Ledum glandulosum (trapper’s tea) – zone 0 • Ledum groenlandicum (Labrador tea) – zone 0-1
An expert on native plants, Richard Hebda is curator of Botany and Earth History at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.