Grandson Jackson stands holding a pink blossom that if ingested could cause a drop in blood pressure, vomiting and death. In his other hand, a sprig of white blossomed s’ikshaldéen we’re harvesting for our community.
My dad, Jackson and I have stopped at upper Salamander Creek camping area. We walk down the trail to the muskeg. This bog is accessible for kids and elders. Grandpa Mickey, aka dad, stops to rest and tell a story.
Actually, my favorite name for Labrador tea is storytelling tea. Grandson Jackson and I listen. Afterward, we step into the muskeg wearing boots and rain gear as gathering tea is wet work after a rain.
Across the muskeg, white and pink flowers bloom, perfuming the July morning. “Try not to step on the plants,” I tell Jackson, though it’s impossible. Hudson Bay tea, I tell Jackson, is called s’ikshaldéen in Lingít. We practice the word: Sick-shul-dean. S’ikshaldéen is known by names such as tundra tea, Labrador tea, Indian tea, Marsh tea, Swamp tea, St. James’s Tea, Haida tea and more. In fact, Labrador tea is in the same family as rhododendrons and azaleas.
We step gingerly, our boots sinking. I pick a pink-blossomed plant and a white-blossomed plant, both growing near each another. Both the similar-looking pink plants, the bog-rosemary (Andromeda polifolia), and bog-laurel (Kalmia microphylla subspecies occidentalis) are toxic. We examine a pink one. “Pink, poisonous,” I say. “Easy to remember. And there’s white underneath and the leaves are kind of shiny.”
Then, I hold the white-blossomed one and turn it over. I pick a leaf. The top is smooth, the edges a bit turned under, and beneath are orange (rusty) colored hairs that act like a sponge helping retain moisture from muskeg and rain. We inspect the underside. “An orange belly is good,” I say. “Belly is good for making jelly.”
Jackson holds up the pink blossom. “Poisonous pink,” he says. He holds up the white blossomed sprig. “White blossoms and an orange belly means it’s good.” Got it!
Picking from the patch
We walk to a large patch, growing in different heights. The tea grows to several feet high and has narrow, one inch leaves but in colder climates, Labrador tea grows lower forming a carpet. It’s especially adaptive and fire tolerant. It’ll re-sprout from stems in a low-intensity fire. If a fire destroys the top, it rapidly regenerates from the roots and rhizomes, which are sometimes two feet down.
Labrador tea is high in Vitamin C and often used as a syrup for coughs and sore throats. The tea is used for the flu, stomach problems, muscle spasms and for treating head lice. People use it to treat arthritis, as a tea bath for eczema and a treatment for a hangover. Also, the medicinal properties in the leaves and stems are being studied for anti-tumor capabilities.
Labrador tea is unsafe in large or concentrated amounts, Auntie Viv, a traditional medicines expert warns, because it causes stomach inflammation, vomiting, gastroenteritis, diarrhea and more. And it’s unsafe to use while pregnant or breast-feeding. It’s a commonly used medicine among Arctic peoples and Northwest Coast tribes.
I touch a spindly plant blooming with white flowers and pull it toward us. Jackson bends near. I pluck a few leaves from the top. “See how this one is spindly and tall, and those are full of leaves? This one should be pruned.”
Some harvesters avoid picking while the tea is blooming, which is typically May through July. Others, like Auntie Viv, make tea from the white blossoms. “People like us and the animals,” I say to Jackson, “the caribou, moose and migrating birds browse on the tea. Even the wind helps prune.”
My rule is only take a few new shoots from each area, and when harvesting older leaves, don’t take all the leaves. We harvest a small bagful and then hop into the truck and ride along the dirt road, looking for another muskeg. A mile or so down the road, a sasquatch catches our attention. It peers out menacingly from the treeline, it’s familiar gait made famous from a well-known Big Foot photo.
“I can’t believe it!” Jackson exclaims.
“Maybe the Forest Service’s mascot is now Big Foot,” I say, laughing.
Harvesting in Big Foot’s shadow
We get out of the truck and Jackson and I step across the ditch. We don’t approach the large wooden Big Foot, but decide this is an interesting place to harvest. My dad stays harvesting tea near the muskeg edge. As we pick I talk about how harvesting protocols different with each tribe and sometimes with each family. His Chippewa relatives harvest differently from his Tlingit relatives. I mention even our Sámi relatives use the tea.
After a few muskegs, we’ve picked a couple gallons. It’ll rot if left in a plastic bag so it needs to be dried or frozen. Dry it in paper bags in a warm place or dry it on a cookie sheet in the sun or use a dehydrator. But if it’s too humid, dry on a low temp in the oven. Dried tea lasts most of the year and even longer. Crumble it up and put it in jars for seasoning. I sometimes freeze spring growth and the dried tea in small amounts. Importantly, we share with community, our elders, the auntie who makes our medicines, the clan sister who moved to New Jersey, anyone who can’t get out.
Making tea is an art, and there’re several methods, but boiling Labrador tea leaves releases toxic alkaloids so it’s recommended to pour boiling water over the leaves and steep for about 5-10 min, no longer. Use it as an herbal tea and as a spice to flavor meat. My family uses sprigs behind our ears at our campsites to keep bugs away. We put it in jars of water and scatter leaves across the table. I use it for what ails us, chop it in muffins and breads, and I’ve used it in pesto and I’ll add a sprig to flavor water.
We harvest year round, depending on our needs. Labrador tea is an evergreen, staying green in winter and it doesn’t shed leaves. This adaptation allows the plant to keep warm in northern climates and retain moisture. So harvesting depends on preferences. Spring growth tastes slightly different from fall growth and the medicinal properties are different too. Spring growth also doesn’t have the orange underside so when identifying it make sure to look at older leaves and note the blossom’s color, if any. We harvest new growth by pinching “above” where the growth begins because the blossom’s health depends on the previous year’s growth — dormant buds are beneath the joint.
In springtime, when I walk in the muskeg, I want to lie down and rest in the intoxicating scent. In the fall, the tea-scent is deep and woodsy and familiar. It’s the smell of dried tea leaves many Alaskans grew up with.
Grandson Jackson, my dad, and I walk, picking, and telling stories. This is our tea ceremony: we pick new growth in spring and early summer and older growth in the fall. Our next excursion for tea will be soon. We will head out in the Dís Dís Yádi/Child Moon/September is when many harvesters traditionally pick Labrador tea. It’s also the month “When food begins to be scarce and we do with less.”
By the time someone receives a small bag of dried tea, think about footprints sunk into bog, of small hands and large hands working together, of fingers pinching off leaves, of kneeling and touching the earth, of taking care, of giving. Labrador tea is a tea for community.
If you take a friend, or a grandchild, or an elder, a story of community will weave itself among the moss and bull pine and eventually steep in the bottom of a cup — it’s tea time.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes the column “Planet Alaska” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’.