By Janelle Eklund
I love walking through the forest during the autumn to drink in the fragrant aroma that permeates from prolific Labrador tea plants. Their leaves resemble rosemary and to me have a sweet earthy smell, not too much unlike rosemary. Intermingling with other decaying plants that have a more 'rotten' odor, they seem to mask rottenness with its intoxicating earthiness.
Labrador tea is in the heath family and there are two varieties even though they look the same. One is narrow-leaf Labrador tea and you will see it primarily on the tundra and in sphagnum bogs but also grows within the spruce forest. It has narrower leaves than Labrador tea (also known as Hudson's Bay Tea) and grows only about one to two feet tall. Labrador tea has wider leaves, grows to three feet tall, and you mainly see it in the forest and open bogs. They both have clusters of delicate white five petal flowers that look like an umbrella over the top of the stem.
Leaves in different stages of development, and/or flowers of Labrador tea, are used to make a tasty tea known to have medicinal qualities. In Tanaina Plantlore Priscilla Russel Kari says that the natives have used it for treating weak blood, colds, tuberculosis, arthritis, dizziness, stomach problems, and heartburn, sores, and used as a laxative. Another way she says it has been used is for a spice for meat. "...boil the leaves and branches in water, and then soak the meat in the tea until it tastes just right. The meat may also be boiled directly in the water with the stems and leaves. It can lighten the taste of a strong tasting meat such as bear.”
There are some cautions that need to be taken when using Labrador tea. Since it contains ledol, which is a narcotic toxin, it must be used infrequently, in small concentrations, and in small quantities. Steeping it about 5-10 minutes is the norm. Never let it sit for days as more ledol will decoct out. It is toxic and can cause all kinds of problems, including death in large amounts. So use it in moderation.
On the tundra be sure not to confuse Labrador tea with Bog rosemary when they are not in flower. The leaves look very similar but the difference is that the back side of Labrador tea leaves has a rusty look, are fealty, and aromatic. The backs of Bog rosemary are smooth, light colored and don't have that aromatic smell of Labrador tea. Bog rosemary is very poisonous, so stay away from it except to enjoy its beauty.
During mild temperatures and lack of snow you just might still be able to enjoy the forest aromas. Drink it in and savor it for when the snow flies and lays a blanket masking the flavors of the earth.
From my light to yours-
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.