PLEASE NOTE: Culturally Significant Plant = Ethnobotanic Uses: Tribes of the Missouri River region used the leaves for tea and the roots for fuel on buffalo hunting trips when fuel wood was scarce. Read more.
The roots of this small shrub are reddish, and another common name for the plant is Red Root. New Jersey Tea can be used in making a light green dye from the flowers, red dye from the roots, and the rest of the plant yields a cinnamon red dye.
This shrubby perennial grows up to 3¼’ tall with multiple stems that are erect to ascending. The lower stems are persistently woody with the upper herbaceous branches dying back annually. Alternate (or sometimes opposite) leaves occur along the entire length of each stem. Leaves are up to 3″ long and 2″ across; they are ovate in shape and their margins are smooth to finely serrated and slightly hairy (ciliate). The upper leaf surface is pale-medium to dark green, and smooth to somewhat rough from minute stiff hairs. The lower leaf surface is pale green and pubescent with hairs typically more abundant along the lower sides of the veins. Each leaf has a prominent central vein and two primary lateral veins; the upper leaf surface is often wrinkled along these veins. The petiole of each leaf is short, light green to light yellow, and pubescent.
The upper stems terminate in clusters (panicles) of flowers and other panicles of flowers also develop from the axils of upper leaves. The peduncles (basal stalks) of these panicles are 2-8″ long, light green to light yellow, relatively stout, and pubescent. Individual panicles are 2-5″ long and 2-3″ across; their lateral branches are up to 1½” long and widely spreading to ascending. Each flower has a pleasant floral fragrance and is up to ¼” across, consisting of 5 white sepals and 5 white petals. The sepals are triangular-ovate and folded inward, while the petals have long narrow bases and widened tips folded upward.
After blooming, the flowers are replaced by 3-lobed seed capsules up to ¼” across. At maturity, these capsules become dark brown or black, and they split open to mechanically eject their seeds up to several feet. Each capsule contains 3 seeds that are 2-3 mm. in length, brown to dark brown, glossy, and ovoid in shape.
Culinary and Medicinal Uses:
Leaves are collected and used to brew a tea whose flavor is very similar to the true tea brewed from the Asian tea tree (Camellia sinensis). However, these leaves are devoid of caffeine. After the Boston Tea Party in 1773, patriotic colonists devised a substitute for true tea called Liberty Tea, which is made from equal parts of Sweet Goldenrod, Betony, Red Clover, and New Jersey Tea.
Tea made from a plant or shrub (Ceanothus americanus) grown in Pearsontown about 20 miles from Portland, Maine, was served to a circle of ladies and gentlemen in Newbury Port, who pronounced it nearly, if not quite, its equal in flavor to genuine Bohea tea. So important a Discovery claims, especially at this Crisis, the Attention of every Friend of America. If we have the Plant nothing is wanting but the Process of curing it, to have Tea of our own Manufacture. If a Receipt cannot be obtained, Gentlemen of Curiosity and Chymical Skill would render their Country eminent Service, if by Experiments they would investigate the best method of preparing it for use.
– Boston Gazette, November 21st, 1768 –
The Menominee Indians used a decoction of the root for coughs. A staple of American folk medicine for many years, Red Root is used to treat a wide variety of ailments including high blood pressure and lymph system problems. Alkaloids from the root have been demonstrated to exert a mild effect in lowering blood pressure.
The nectar and pollen of the flowers attract a variety of insects. Floral visitors include Halictid bees, Andrenid bees, plasterer bees, metallic green sweat bees, bumblebees, small resin bees, Lasioglossum sweat bees, Sphecid wasps, Vespid wasps, Syrphid flies, thick-headed flies, Tachinid flies, flesh flies (Sarcophaga spp.), and Muscid flies. Hairstreak butterflies (Satyrium spp.), Peck’s Skipper (Polites peckius), Northern Broken Dash (Wallengrenia egeremet), and Hoary Edge (Achalarus lyciades) all feed on nectar from this plant.
The larvae of several moths and butterflies rely on New Jersey Tea as their host plant, including the Broad-lined Erastria (Erastria coloraria) (which, sadly, is deemed critically imperiled or imperiled in New York), Red-fronted Emerald (Nemoria rubrifrontaria), Cecropia Moth (Hyalophora cecropia), Mottled Duskywing (Erynnis martialis), and Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus).
Where Found Locally:
- 100 Acre Wood
- North Woods Nature Preserve
- Peter Desrochers Memorial Country Knolls Trails
- Zim Smith Trail (along spur trail to Route 9)