The narrow leaves of Labrador tea are evergreen. Shiny dark green and leathery above, slightly woolly below, they have smooth margins that curl under. The leaf undersides are white in young leaves, cinnamon-brown in older ones. The thin stems of this shrub are hairy when young. The white flowers form umbel-like clusters. A sweet, spicy aroma is noticeable when walking through these knee-high bushes.
Dwarf Labrador tea is very similar in all respects to the common form except its leaves and overall size are smaller.
This species is holarctic-distributed all around the northern regions or the planet. It is one of the most common shrubs.
The tannin is called leditannic acid, and there are gallic acid (a bitter substance), wax, resin, salts, and ascorbic acid. Be warned that Labrador tea contains ledol, a poisonous substance causing cramps and paralysis. Grieve says the plant also contains a stearopten, valeric and volatile acids, ericolin, and ericinol.
Labrador tea is common, widespread, and always available in northern climates where non-evergreen leaves are obtainable only during a short growing season. The plant also has a pleasant aromatic scent, lending a spicy fragrance to a tea. For these reasons it is perhaps no wonder this plant is mentioned in such a large number of ethnobotanical reports and herbal compendia. A small amount added to black tea does add a spicy aroma. It is used in this way on Nelson Island (Ager and Ager) or mixed with willow leaf tea. (Lantis) Several authors (Tobe, de Laguna, Grieve) indicate that Labrador tea is good for colds. The leaf tea is cathartic if it is strong enough to be orange-colored. The ascorbic acid content is second only to rosehips. (Lantis)
The leaves and occasionally the twigs and flowers are used to make tea. The method of gathering and preparing the leaves varies greatly. I usually use them fresh and prefer the older leaves, but some herbalists prefer the young leaves and dry them. Be sure to dry them slowly and carefully so they do not turn black.
Some Native peoples in western Canada steam the leaves until they turn dark brown and place the rhizomes of the licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) in with them for flavor. (Turner & Szczawinski) Hall says to drink it for rheumatism.
There are ceremonial uses for Labrador tea; one is to turn a stalk and throw it out the door if a child is ill or if you want to get rid of ghosts. (Oswalt)
Bees are much attracted to the flowers, but animals do not browse much on the plants, which are slightly poisonous. Leaves strewn among clothes impart a fragrance pleasant to most people.
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Copyright © 1987 by Eleanor G. Viereck