There are three species of Labrador tea. Rhododendron tomentosum (previously Ledum palustre), Rhododendron groenlandicum (previously Ledum groenlandicum), and Rhododendron neoglandulosum (previously Ledum glandulosum).
The common variety of Labrador tea you find in Southeast Alaska is Rhododendron groenlandicum. It has many names such as Hudson bay tea, muskeg tea, bog tea, swamp tea, and marsh tea. In the Tlingit language we call the plant s’ikshaldéen. Labrador tea has been used by indigenous people for thousands of years. Everyone has different ways of harvesting and preparing the tea for a variety of uses.
Some people prefer springtime leaves, some prefer the leaves when it is flowering, and some prefer the leaves in fall or winter. Some people like to make tea from the flowers as well as the leaves. Some people use only the leaves, and some people include part of the stem. Some people like to use fresh leaves and some people prefer dry leaves. Some people brew the leaves for 5-10 minutes while the water is still orange and hasn’t turned dark brown yet. Some people like to keep a pot of it brewing on their stove, which is not recommended as this brings out the ledol in the plant. Some people prefer only a few leaves in a pot of tea, and some people prefer a large handful. Some prefer Labrador tea hot and some prefer it cold. Some prefer it on its own and some prefer to mix it with other teas such as rosehips. The process of making Labrador tea as a beverage is simply a matter of preference.
But there are some very important things to know about Labrador tea before you choose to harvest and make your own. All species of Labrador tea contain ledol. Low concentrations of ledol in your tea has a restorative effect like coffee or chaga. Large concentrations of ledol can affect the nervous system. Ledol is a sesquiterpene that in large concentrations can cause delirium, slow your pulse, lower your blood pressure, cause hallucinations, cramps, paralysis, and in extreme cases of high concentrations it can cause death. But before you get too scared of Labrador tea, consider that a lot of varieties of eucalyptus and valerian contain ledol as well. Grazing animals avoid Labrador tea because of the ledol which affects them much more than humans. Luckily the Labrador tea in Southeast Alaska has the lowest amounts of ledol in the Rhododendron groenlandicum variety. The consensus seems to be that it is fine to drink a cup of it every day. You just don’t want to drink lots of it every day, or lots of it in one sitting. And for those you who like to boil it for a long time on the stove, it is important to know that is how to release the most amounts of ledol into your tea so you want to consider not doing that. If you boil it hard you will release the harmful alkaloid andromedotoxin which is also known as grayanotoxin.
Now all the scary stuff aside, Labrador tea is wonderful and has many uses. It has been used for thousands of years to treat asthma, rheumatism, burns, ulcers, stomach flu, diarrhea, chills, pneumonia, heart burn, upset stomach, headaches, sore throats, lice, dry skin, dandruff, kidney disease, liver disease, and as a blood purifier and much more. Labrador tea has been studied and found to have properties that are anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antiviral, antifungal, insecticidal, and analgesic. This means you can use it internally and externally for a myriad of ailments.
Not only can you drink the tea, you can use the tea as a wash. You can wash cuts and scrapes. You can soak your tired stinky feet in a pot of tea; it’ll help to kill the fungus and bring down inflammation at the same time. You can make a big pot of tea and add it to your bath. It’s great for your skin and will relieve inflammation throughout your body as you soak.
Not only can you drink the tea, you can eat it too. Some people like to make Labrador tea jelly. Some people also like to make tea combos to make jelly with. Rose hips are a fantastic addition to Labrador tea. You can also make a syrup infused with the leaves that helps soothe a sore throat, and it’s full of vitamin C which will boost your immune system.
Some people even use it for cooking. Cook with it the same way you would rosemary. Labrador tea can add flavor to moose, elk, deer, and caribou.
Here are a few recipes to experiment with. We recommend looking into the numerous ways people have used this versatile plant.
Labrador Tea Recipe
1/4 cup of Labrador tea leaves (20-30 leaves)
4 cups of water
Directions: Bring the water to a boil. Turn off the water, and put the leaves in and steep for 5-10 minutes.
Alternative directions: Combine tea leaves and water, bring to a boil. Strain out the first batch of water after five minutes of a low boil. Add four more cups of fresh water and bring to a boil and steep for 5-10 minutes.
Alternative directions: Combine tea leaves and water, bring to a boil. Steep for 5-10 minutes. When drinking the tea, fill glass 1/3 with tea and 2/3 with water to dilute.
Labrador Tea Jelly Recipe
3 cups of tea.
4 1/2 cups of sugar
Teaspoon of butter
1/4 cup of lemon juice
One box of pectin
Follow the directions of any tea jelly and experiment with the texture you like. Add a little bit of vanilla to change up the recipe. You can also make the tea with rose hips to change up the flavor of the jelly.
https://www.wikihow.com/Make-Tea-Jelly. This is a link that has three different recipes for tea jelly.
Labrador Tea mixed berry Jam
2 cups sugar
2 cups of Labrador tea
8 cups mixed berries
2 tablespoons powdered pectin
In a large pot, combine sugar and tea up to a simmer and stir until sugar has dissolved.
Stir in the berries, let simmer until thickens. Typically takes 10 minutes.
Stir in pectin and bring to hard boil. Cook one minute or until liquid reaches 220 degrees.
Remove from heat. Can use water bath method.
We hope this inspires you to experiment with the wonderful flavor of s’ikshaldéen. Whatever you like to call it, we call it yum!
• Vivian Mork Yéilk’ shares the Planet Alaska column with her mother, Vivian Faith Prescott.