New Jersey Tea
Genesee County Herb Society / February 2010, Herb Study
Common names: Redroot (Red Root), New Jersey Tea, Jersey Root, Walpole Tea, Wild Snowball, Mountain-sweet, (Western var. California Lilac)
Latin name: Ceanothus americanus / Family: Rhamnaceae (Buckthorn)
C. americanus is an easily grown native shrub of eastern (as far west as MN) North America. Other more attractive varieties from western N. Am. are not cold hardy in our Mid Michigan hardiness zone and are not the varieties of historical importance.
Cultivation: Zone 4-8 (western varieties are not cold hardy here)
Ht: to 2-3'. Woody shrub with showy clusters of white blooms on new growth during whole summer. Leaves are toothed oval, textured and parallel veined. Roots have a reddish outer skin.
Prefers full sun to light shade, poor soil, not too damp. Not fussy, except can suffer rot from ‘wet feet’. Can be pruned hard in early spring (like a Spirea).
Flowers are attractive to bees, hummingbirds and butterflies.
Roots have nitrogen fixing nodules and a reddish colored epidermis.
Harvest leaves for tisane. Dried leaves have more flavor of "China tea” (Thea sinensis). Frontier offers wild crafted, cut leaves from the U.S. 5 cups per pound, starts at $12.70/lb. Richters sells dried cut root $7 for 50g (1 2/3 oz.), and seeds (pkt: $5 plus shipping).
To Use as a Herbal Tisane (herb tea): 1 t. dry leaves per cup of boiling water (or 1 Tbsp. fresh leaves). Steep 5-15 minutes. Sweetener and milk or cream helps flavor.
History and Folklore: Eastern tribes made a sedative tea from the root, and a skin treatment from an infusion of the whole plant. (Native Harvests by Barrie Kavasch)
Am. Indians used root tea for colds, fevers, snakebite, stomachache, lung ailments, laxative, blood tonic. Root is strongly astringent (8% tannin), expectorant, sedative. (Peterson Field Guides - Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants by Steven Foster and James Duke) Root tea was used for dysentery, asthma, sore throat, bronchitis, whooping cough, spleen inflammation or pain. Richters Herb Catalogue notes Indians used it for skin problems, skin cancer, venereal sores, and says tisane is a good gargle for mouth and sore throats.
Alkaloid in root is mildly ‘hypotensive’ (lowers blood pressure).
1758 - part of a Cherokee syphilis cure that reportedly worked in one week, which used a combination of Mayapple root, Lobelia root, Wild Cherry bark, with the powdered root of Redroot applied topically. (Planting the Future - Saving Our Medicinal Herbs, Edited by Rosemary Gladstar and Pamela Hirsch) English colonial doctors who used only Lobelia and were disappointed.
Note: Walpole Tea? Robert Walpole was the first Prime Minister of Britain. There are also a couple of New England towns and a bay named Walpole, so it could be a geographic reference. Geographical locations named after the PM.)
Civil War doctors used a Ceanothus decoction for "ague cake" or malarial 'splenitis'. (Henrietta Kress)
The dye is reported to produce a rich cinnamon brown shade. (No mordant mentioned, and I assume that means the root, since the tisane is a very pale shade of golden.)
Here is a photo I took last year at the County Extension's Backyard Herb Garden, right before garden tour weekend. (Just a reminder, if you click on the photo you can see an enlarged version of it.)
Liberty Tea—America’s First “Buy American” Campaign
The Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773 was a grassroots, direct action protest against import taxes on imported Chinese tea, which were imposed by the British crown on the American colonies.
After dumping 343 barrels of imported Chinese tea into Boston Harbor, American colonists boycotted the British Empire’s tea and substituted local native herbs as their beverage of choice. They even went so far as to spread rumors about the unhealthful aspects of Tea.
The colonist’s first choice for "Liberty Tea" was the herbaceous perennial Monarda (then known as Oswego, now as Bee Balm) and northern colonials also preferred Labrador Tea while more southerly colonials preferred New Jersey Tea. (Eat the Weeds by Ben Charles Harris)
Raspberry leaves, various mints, and sarsaparilla are also mentioned in the folklore of the boycott.
Drinking Liberty Tea became a patriotic political statement that encouraged unity in the years of the American Revolutionary War. These native American herbs have a similar astringent flavor and healthful properties to Tea, but without the caffeine.
NOTE: Our tea bags to sample at the meeting were of a Liberty Tea blend that was harvested late last summer from shrubs at the Extension herb garden. I blended a pinch of Monarda blossoms into each tea bag before sealing, which improved the flavor of the tea considerably!