Labrador tea is a refreshing beverage from the forest floor.
One of the many pleasures of taking to the woods is the time we elect to sit down at the base of a tree, to quietly soak in the natural world around us. That act alone may oftentimes be the real reason many of us lace up our boots to hit the trails in the first place.
The next time you’re stalking through a coniferous, boggy forest and decide to take that brief respite, take a look at the low-growing plants around you. You may spot a small, spindly shrub known as Labrador tea. It’s a plant that has been utilized by people for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. In this little plant we have the main ingredient to make a tasty, nutritious, and restorative light-bodied tea.
On occasion, I’ve stopped my hunting or hiking upon spotting Labrador tea plants, built a small fire to heat my canteen of water, and made a spot of woodsman’s tea to enjoy before moving on. It’s amazing how much more enjoyable and full a day in the woods becomes from such a simple act.
Labrador tea is known by many names. In my area of the Midwest it’s known as Indian tea or swamp tea, given its use by early tribes in the area and the habitat where it is most commonly found. It’s also known as muskeg tea, Hudson’s Bay tea, and several colorful indigenous-American names.
Its Latin name, Rhododendron groenlandicum, is worth noting because that’s the name you’ll want to use when searching, either online or in print, in order to make a positive identification. Proper identification is essential before partaking of any wild edible.
Labrador tea is common to coniferous forests and peaty or boggy areas. It can often be found growing to a height of two feet although occasionally it also grows to three feet in height (knee to waist high is a good way to visualize it). Small diameter, bent twigs hold one- to two-inch long, narrow, alternating leaves. These leaves are green on top, tan colored and fuzzy underneath. Their edges will also usually be curled over toward the underside of the leaf.
In summer, from mid May to late July, small clusters of white flowers appear. In winter the leaves droop, creating an image not unlike a closed umbrella or a drooping miniature palm tree. Crush a few leaves in your hand and hold to your nose. They should have a pungent, vaguely peat-like smell, with a hint of citrus.
To my nose they often remind of commercial earthworm bedding that’s had a lemon buried in it somewhere. But again, do a thorough investigation via photos and guidebooks for safe and correct identification. Once you’ve made a proper identification be prepared to start seeing Labrador tea plants everywhere!
The nutritional and medicinal uses of Labrador tea have a long and recorded history in folklore and native traditions, including as a general tonic and treatment for liver and kidney disorders, high blood pressure and as a topical treatment for skin problems.
Perhaps more interesting has been its use in folk tradition as a deterrent to mice and moths. Twigs of the plant were reportedly kept in granaries and wardrobes to repel the pests. This use of the plant also ought to give you a clue that it should probably not be consumed to excess. There are reportedly toxic properties associated with Labrador tea, and consuming too much may cause some problems, such as headache (although it has also been used as a treatment for headaches when consumed in moderation), dizziness and more. I’ve never had any problems or issues with it myself, but we all react to different foods in our own ways.
Our interests here, however, are purely of the restorative and pleasurable kind. Labrador tea tastes, smells and even looks very much like the green tea you might find in any grocery store. As enjoyable as hiking through a forest surely is, it can also be tiring and just plain physically taxing. It is amazing how rejuvenating it can be to take the time to stop and rest, build a small fire, and enjoy a bit of tea from the leaves of a plant right there at your feet.
The typical method is to set a metal canteen at the edge of a fire and, while the water heats, pluck a handful of leaves and clean them by blowing and gently rubbing away any dirt or insects with your fingers. If you’ve brought a metal camping cup – always a good idea – place the tea leaves in the cup, pour the hot water from the canteen over them, and allow to steep for several minutes. Then, remove the leaves and squeeze the water from them over the cup. Toss the spent leaves, sit back and enjoy the primitive elixir you’ve just made.
If by chance you’ve forgotten to put a cup into your pack or game vest, you could also pick a pocket-full and take them home to enjoy. Or you could simply shove a handful of tea leaves directly into your canteen to steep in the cold water. The flavor doesn’t come out like it does when steeped in hot water, but you’d still be getting a little bit of nutrition and vitamin C. That and the fact that it’s simply fun to make use of the forest in even the most humbling and unassuming way as picking a few leaves from a plant used by hunters and wanderers for thousands of years.
Like what you see here? You can read more great articles by David Smith at his Facebook page, Stumpjack Outdoors.