I love this time of year as winter gives up its grip on the landscape and signs of spring are in abundant evidence. I can’t wait to see the wild flowers pushing their way up through the damp, pungent earth and the buds and blossoms appearing on shrubs. At our Northern base on the Liard Trail in the Northwest Territories, one of my favourite flowers to enjoy every season is the foamy white blossom of the Labrador tea bush. More widely known for its leathery green leaf with the furry, rust coloured underside, the showy, loose, umbrella like cluster of flowers is also beautiful.
Labrador tea loves peaty soil and moist coniferous forests and can be found throughout the northern reaches of North America and indeed around the polar ice cap countries of Scandinavia, Greenland and Russia. The leaves and twigs are browsed by caribou and moose. Although well known for its Indigenous use as a tonic, and a substitute for black tea, did you know that the leaves were also used in beer making to create a heady flavour? In addition, the acrid odour of the dried leaves made it useful to repel rodents and leaf extracts became an insect repellent.
The tea can cause side effects if allowed to steep too long, or if consumed in large doses. Pausing to admire the blooms however is restorative.
Latin names: Rhododendron groenlandicum and Rhododendron tomentosum
Labrador tea is found on many of our expeditions including Nahanni, Thelon, Coppermine and Mountain rivers.