The other day a friend gave me a small bottle of an infused oil made with flowers from Labrador Tea. Early last summer, walking in the forests west of Rocky, she picked the sweetly scented flowers, put them in a jar and covered them with oil. Then she gently heated the oil to infuse it with the flower’s perfume.
This past weekend I poured some of the oil in a bath and indulged in deep relaxation for both my mind and body! If I had a cup of tea made from the leaves of this hardy shrub, I might have melted.
Labrador tea, a shrub that thrives in bogs all over North America from Oregon to the Sub Artic, is used by herbalist to calm minds. As its name implies is most frequently used as a tea. My sister-in-law who lives in Quebec buys her Labrador tea from an old Quebecois woman who hand picks it and sells it for insomnia. My sister-in-law raves about how deep her sleep is after one cup of the old woman’s tea.
It is such a pleasant tea, that Americans drank it after they poured their black tea (Camilla sensis) in the Boston harbour to protest British taxation during the American revolution. Campers, who know something about wild foraging, often enjoy the tea around a campfire.
Although this tea has been safely used by First Nations people and Inuits from time before memory, there are now safety concerns about drinking Labrador tea. One of its plant constituents, a volatile oil called lido, can induce altered states of mind.
Those who make beer from wild plants know this about the delicate white clusters of flowers. Labrador tea’s flowers were at one time an ingredient of homemade beers. The beer makers choose the plant’s flowers over the leaves as the flowers are more intoxicating.
For those curious campers who want to try Labrador tea on a warm July evening but are nervous about the possible altered state it may evoke, don’t worry. The plant constituent responsible for the altered states is not strongly water-soluble. It highly unlikely a cup of tea around a campfire is going to have much of an effect other then to provide peaceful relaxation. One would need to drink many cups of very strong tea to achieve a narcotic effect.
Nature provides mechanisms to limits a plants ability to take control of the mind. As with most plants, Labrador teas chemistry varies throughout the season. It is important to harvest medicine plants when they contain the best medicine. In the case of Labrador tea, the leaves are picked when the red powdery substance appears on the back of the leaves during mid to late summer. At this point in the year, the toxic oils in the plant are weaker and their narcotic effect significantly decreased. Tea made with leaves gathered in the spring, before the red powder appears, is bitter on the tongue. Those who taste plants for a living, like herbalists, know generally plants containing toxins taste bitter. As toxins disperse throughout the growing season, the plants taste better. I consider the bitter taste nature’s safe guard against humans too many eating toxic plants.
Labrador tea is also strongly diuretic. The toxic oils are flushed from the body by the kidneys. Drinking many, strong teas made with this shrub will send one to the outhouse or the bushes several times in the evening. This is another impediment to over consumption of Labrador tea.
Now that being said, there are many other reasons to drink Labrador tea. The leaves are very high in vitamin C. People who drink the tea daily swear it keeps them healthy all winter long. Herbalists also make a syrup of its leaves to ease sore throats, coughs and bronchitis.
In clinical studies in Russia, Labrador tea thrives in the circumpolar boreal forest, has shown that Labrador tea protects the stomach during radiation therapy.
While in the States veterinarians use it to ease the pain associate with Lyme’s disease in horses, cats and dogs. Some herbalists are now using it with humans for the same purpose. There are anecdotal reports of success.
When out in the west country this summer, take along a plant guide books to help find the Labrador tea plant. Explore making a tea with the leaves, and have a relaxing evening by the campfire.