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  • Posted August 31, 2009 by
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    "The plant, by the Indians called Wizzekapukka, is used by them, and the English as a medicine, in nervous and scorbutick Disorders; its most apparent and immediate Effect, is promoting Digestion, and causing a keen Appetite.  To this Plant, the Surgeons residing at the Factories, ascribe all the Qualities of Rhubarb; it is strong Aromatick, and tastes pleasantly enough when drank as a Tea, which is the common Way of using it."

                              Henry Ellis; A Voyage To Hudson's-Bay 1748. 

    This well used plant is commonly known as Labrador Tea.  It's botanical name is Ledum groenlandicum.  It's thin, twisting stems grow some 3 to 4 feet in height and are covered near the top with rather unusual looking leaves that are thick, evergreen and leathery.  The undersurface of these leaves is covered with a wooly mat of first white, then reddish-brown hairs. 

    Rounded clusters of cream-colored star-like blossoms appear on the ends of the stalks between May and July.  These are eventually replaced by clusters of dry husks that hang on until the following spring.  The plant has a strong distinctive smell, especially when flowering.  The smell comes from small glands on the flowerstalk rather than the flowers themselves.  Because of this strong scent, Europeans, and many other groups, used the plant to keep rats and mice out of corn cribs, and to repel fleas, clothes moths, and other household insects.

    The major use of Labrador Tea revolves around its leaves, which can be used either as a refreshing tea drink, a medicine, a smoking compound, or a dye.  The leaves contain tannin, gallic acid, resin, wax, and various salts, including the poisonous compound ledol (Andromedotoxin).

    Ledol, a resinoid carbohydrate, is found not only in Labrador Tea, but in higher concentrations in swamp laurel and rhododendron.  Ledol is known to be poisonous to livestock, especially sheep.  Although Ledol is reputed to induce cramps and paralysis, it is found in such relatively low amounts in Labrador Tea that it produces restorative effects similar to those resulting from caffeine in domestic teas.  One must be very careful when picking this tea not to accidentally pick Swamp Laurel (red flowers, no wool), a very common error made by those unfamiliar with these wild plants.

    Labrador Tea has a pleasant odour and a spicy taste.  Use the leaves fresh or dried.  The best time to pick the leaves is between late winter and early spring.  The Haida picked the leaves in the spring prior to flowering, but the Mainland Comox and Bella Coola gathered the old reddish-brown leaves in late winter, just before the new leaves sprouted.  This is a tea that you will have to practice with regarding taste, as some like it mild, and some like it strong, some steep it like domestic tea, while others boil it for long periods.  Add mint or lemon for taste, or, as many natives did, add the roots of licorice fern or evergreen leaves.  Some people preferred to use the flowers, according to Samuel Hearne in his journal of 1769-1772:

    "Labrador Tea is.... much used by the lower class of the Company's servants as Tea; and by some is thought very pleasant.  But the flower is by far the most delicate, and if gathered at the proper Time, and carefully dried in the shade, will retain its flavour for many years and make a far more pleasant beverage than the leaves."

    As a medicine, Labrador Tea is listed in the U.S. dispensatory as a tonic, an expectorant (facilitates discharge of mucus) and a pectoral (good for disease of the chest or lungs).  The Haida drank the tea (dark, strong, well-bodied) as a medicine for colds and sore throats, the Makah as a blood purifier, the Quinault for rheumatism, and the Gitksan as a tonic.  Europeans used both flowers and leaves to combat colds, fevers, sore throats, headaches, bronchitis, and as a diuretic.  A strong decoction was used externally as a remedy for itching skin conditions and to kill lice.

    The dried leaves are often used as an ingredient in herbal smoking mixtures as they are thought to have a slight narcotic effect.  Using large amounts can cause headaches, drowsiness, or slight dizziness. 

    Using the leaves and branches as a dye can produce a bright yellow-gold, a soft peach-gold, a mellow yellow, a yellow beige, or a golden brown, depending on which of several methods you use.  In Russia the leaves are used to tan leather, while in Europe, during the middle ages, a brew from the leaves and flowers was added to mead to act as a preservative.  During the 15th Century the leaves were used as a substitute for hops in brewing beer.  This plant has even been used in modern prospecting.  It shows significantly high concentrations of zinc and copper when near large deposits of either/or both elements.

    Labrador Tea (Ledum groenlandicum) belongs to the Heath Family (Ericaceae), and is a rare protected plant in many countries.  It grows in bogs throughout Central and Northern Europe, Central and Northern Asia (as far as Japan), and ranges across North America from the middle of the U.S. to the subarctic regions.  Other common names for this tea are Hudson Bay Tea, St. James Tea, Indian Tea, and skan dax ddaxwhl (Gitksan).

    The information in these articles is primarily for reference and education.  They are not intended as a substitute for the advice of a physician. The instructor does not advocate self-diagnosis or self-medication; He urges anyone with continuing symptoms, however minor, to seek medical advice. The reader should be aware that any plant substance, whether used as food or medicine, externally or internally, may cause an allergic reaction in some people.

    NOTE:  Yesterday myself and a Gitksan Medicine Woman [Joanne Peters} gathered a large amount of Labrador tea for use during the next year.  Joanne holds sweats for various native groups in our area, with smudging and healing circles as well, and is quite well known across Canada.

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