Trapper’s tea, also known as Western Labrador tea, belongs to the botanical family Ericaceae. Formerly, it was scientifically referred to as Ledum glandulosum, which has now been changed to Rhododendran neoglandulosum. Trapper’s tea is an evergreen shrub native to the U.S., commonly occurring in Western North America where it grows in mountainous wetland areas such as bogs, swamps and open wooded sites. As its name suggests, this fragrant plant is famous for the tea prepared from its leaves. Trapper’s tea is valued for its medicinal uses and it has few other traditional uses as well.
Trapper’s tea usually grows erect to a height of approximately 0.5 to 2 meters. It has glandular-dotted twigs covered with minute hairs. Its leaves are revolute, 1.5 to 4 centimeters in length and arranged alternately. The leathery leaves are deep green on their upper surface and light green on the underside with a hairy and glandular texture. The small glands found on the leaves emit a resinous odor. The edges of the leaves are found to slightly curl under. Shape of these leaves is variable, which may be ovoid, oval-elongated or elliptical.
Clusters of small, white flowers which are 10 to 15 millimeters wide and with 5 broad and rounded petals are borne at the tips of branches. The flowers are hermaphrodite with long stamens and a relatively short style. The flower stalks are 1 to 2 centimeters long and hairy towards their base. Trapper’s tea bear flowers from June to August. Its flowers have a pleasant aromatic smell. Its fruits are round to ovoid capsules, 3 to 5 millimeters in length, which dehisce to release the seeds enclosed within.
Uses for Trapper’s tea
Although the shrub contains a narcotic toxin called Ledel, its leaves, either fresh or dried, have been steeped for aromatic tea since the Americans fought their war of Independence. Toxic reactions can occur if the leaves are boiled for too long. This problem can be avoided by taking care to uncover the container and brewing only for a short duration. Alternatively, the tea could be prepared safely by placing the leaves in cold water and leaving it under the sun. The leaves can be chewed or used as a condiment to flavor foods. It can be used as an alternative for bay leaf.
Medicinally, the young flower shoots and leaves are used for their laxative effect and to induce sweating and urination. They are also used to strengthen and tone the stomach. The leaves are rich in vitamin C and contain tannin, gallic acid, wax, resin and salts. Indigenous people popularly consumed the tea for stimulation and relaxation. Brewed at high strengths, the tea is used for external applications to treat skin ailments and for killing lice.
Crushed leaves mixed with alcohol and glycerine is used as an insect repellent. Scattering Trapper’s tea leaves over stored clothing is believed to drive away moths. It is also used to repel mice and rats. Additionally, Trapper’s tea plant is also utilized for aroma therapy.
Cultivation and propagation
Trapper’s tea prefers moist, acidic soil which is rich in humus. They can grow in sandy, loamy or clay soil with very acidic conditions. Trapper’s tea can survive in woodland and light woodland as well as in full sunlight. These plants are known to grow better in soil with some amount of fungal association. Removing the dead flowers prior to the time it set seeds aid the plant to conserve energy for seed production.
Trapper’s tea can be propagated with seeds during the month of February or March in a shady spot. The germination rate is quite slow and the time taken for germination is variable. Plants are more likely to survive if seedlings are grown in pots under shade for about 18 months, before transplanting to a permanent location. Stem cuttings is another method used for propagation. This can be done in July or August using 5 to 8 centimeters of half-ripe stem cuttings with a heel in a frame, which can be planted in spring.