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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Labrador Tea.....

One of my projects this winter will be compiling and organizing information and photos for a 'Anaktuvuk guide to plants' thing I am putting together, which is going to take me years and years but you have to start some where right?  I do it only for my own sanity!  I thought it would be neat to post some info and a couple photos of various plants I am learning about.  This is not going to be gospel people, I am not a scientist or expert on herbal anything and I m not diagnosing a darn thing. Insert your expected disclaimer here.

This post is about Labrador tea, (in Inupiaq it is called tilaaqiaq) one of the most used herbs in the arctic.  My 'arctic tea' journey started with this plant and it is one of my all time favorite plants. Inupiat have used it to treat everything from colds to to lethargy to wounds.  It has a pleasant spicy taste and gives you a bit of a pick me up similar to a caffeine high.   We use it almost everyday in the winter, to fight off colds and warm chilled toes and fingers. It can be picked all year long and I have heard and read of great debate on when the best times to pick it might be, from when it's brown to during flowering to after flowering.  I do know that the flowers contain the highest concentration of ledol, the stimulating substance found in the plant, which is also poisonous in high doses.  Ledol can cause horrible things to happen to you, but from what I can tell all of the information is gathered from cows overgrazing on huge patches of the stuff.  So don't graze on it people!  and don't boil in a covered pot for more than 10 minutes.    Use only a pinch or two per cup, it blends well with modern teas.  It's one of the hardest herbs to pick simply because you cannot just reach down and pull it out, as you tend to take the whole root system and the dirt it was attached to.  I have started to carry a small pair of scissors with me just to clip the tips of Labrador tea plants.  I gather it when they are not in bloom, as I like to let the plants have the opportunity to procreate.  You can also dig through the snow and find the leaves for emergency rations.  Be careful as the more poisonous plant called bog rosemary resembles this herb.  Bog rosemary will not have the intense scent and the underside of the rosemary leaves are smooth and not fuzzy.  I have noticed that the ptarmigan here will eat labrador tea and old berries while they wait for the willow to sprout their tasty buds.  And this gives the ptarmigan a very yummy herby taste, much preferred over the overdose of willow taste they gain in the spring.  It makes an amazing herbal satchet and will release it's scent for a long period of time.  European people used Labrador tea to brew an herbal beer called Gruit.   Northern lore says that it was an herb used to rid an area from ghosts, just twist a stalk of it in the room, and then remove it from the area.  The same procedure was used it a house where a child was sick.

To me this herbs is the herald of the growing season, as the metallic snow smell is replaced by it's heady scent.  It is the temptress of bees and softens every tundra corner with its velvet like covering.


  1. Lovely post! I don't live on the tundra, but I would certainly love to read your book when you finish it.

  2. I just did a post on Labrador Tea as well. I linked you up as a source for more information even though you say you're not an expert. You still know a heck of a lot more than I do.

  3. I have had the honor of a friend sharing some of her Labrador harvest with me a couple years back - truly a great addition to the winter cupboard. I have joined your blog with great excitment to learn more about your way of life and art.

  4. It's really interesting for me to read this article. Thanks to the writer of it. I like the subject and all that are concerned. I definitely want to know more soon.

  5. strange that the flower looks right but the pile of leaves in your photo, looks like spruce needles. We thought Labrador tea had a much larger elongated leaf which is green on top and rust coloured on the bottom?.We are in the southern Canadian Rockies, so maybe ours looks different that the one on the tundra?

    1. I also noticed how different this plants looks in our area compared to Canadian plants! Our plants are much more slender and petite, though they have the characteristic 'tea' smell and rust colored, and fuzzy, underleaf. An elder also said the farther east you go the larger the leaf gets....and it gets easier to confuse with bog rosemary.