A member of the heath family (Ericaceae), the shrubby Labrador tea commonly grows 1 to 3 feet tall. The 1- to 3-inch-long green leaves of Labrador tea sport fuzzy white or orange undersides, as do the twigs. An evergreen, it keeps its tough leaves in winter. From late May through June, white five-petal flowers bloom in clusters at the ends of branches. Though black flies may be swarming, they won't be visiting these flowers. Black flies pollinate other species of the heath family, but bumblebees pollinate Labrador tea.
Labrador tea thrives in acid peatlands and forested peatland systems, despite very low nutrient levels there. The range of Ledum groenlandicum extends from Greenland to Alaska and across northern Minnesota to the eastern Great Lakes region. Labrador tea is found in wetlands throughout northern and central Minnesota, especially in black spruce swamps and bogs, where it is often one of the dominant plant species. With a thick mat of sphagnum moss underfoot, Labrador tea is commonly accompanied by other heath species, including blueberry, creeping snowberry, cranberry, leatherleaf, bog laurel, and bog rosemary. Stunted tamarack, white cedar, black spruce, and jack pine are typical trees overhead.
Labrador tea is well adapted for life in acidic bogs and swamps. It endures extremely low nutrient levels, cold winters, hot summers, flooding, and drought, as well as ground occasionally frozen into the growing season. Labrador tea conserves nutrients by not dropping its leaves. The edges of its leaves curl under to aid in reducing water loss. Thick leaves also help prevent the shrub from drying out on sweltering summer days and blustery winter nights. The entire plant contains andromedotoxin, an alkaloid that causes it to taste bad to hungry herbivores, such as moose.
From Ojibwe Indians to voyageurs, people have used the leaves of Labrador tea for centuries to brew tea. The leaves, fresh or dried, make a pale yellow tea, high in vitamin C. The warm tea (aniibiish in Ojibwe) is described by some as fragrant and soothing. In his journals, Henry David Thoreau wrote, "It has a rather agreeable fragrance, between turpentine and strawberries. It is rather strong and penetrating, and sometimes reminds me of the peculiar scent of a bee." The scent is somewhat reminiscent of freshly cut white spruce or balsam fir. To try Labrador tea for yourself, pluck a handful of leaves, add to boiled water, steep for five minutes, and sweeten to taste.
Kelly Amoth and Joe Walewski, naturalists
Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center