Labrador tea

Wapusk National Park

There are two species of this fragrant shrub that are widespread in the Churchill region, including within Wapusk National Park. Both varieties have dull dark green leathery leaves with woolly undersides and lightly rolled edges, and they both produce neat, round clusters of white flowers. They are fairly easy to tell apart based on their size and where they grow.

The larger of the two species, Rhododendron groelandicum, grows within but rarely beyond the inland forested areas of black and white spruce. The dwarf variety, Rhododendron tomentosum, is a low shrub with smaller, slimmer leaves and is found hugging the subarctic tundra. If a walk in the tundra on a hot summer day produces a glorious fragrance, you will likely find the dwarf Labrador Tea crushed underfoot.

Many traditional uses for Labrador Tea have been reported. Indigenous peoples and early Europeans made a hot beverage with it. Medicinal uses for the plant have also been described. Various oral preparations, done by an experienced person, have been used to treat diarrhea and stomach flu, chills and headache, infant teething pains and bad breath, while topical applications have been used to ease arthritis pain, reduce hair loss, eye infections, rashes, burns and itchy, chapped or sore skin. The shrub is also used to add aroma to the sweat lodge by pouring water boiled with the leaves onto the hot rocks. It is, however, important to note that improper preparation of the plant can cause health complications.

An interesting practical use of Labrador Tea is to repel insects. The recipe is to crush fresh leaves, place them in a glass jar and cover them with olive, grape seed or canola oil. Place the container on a window ledge where it will get plenty of sun and warmth. After two weeks, strain the crushed leaves out of the liquid and you have organic and pesticide-free insect repellent that leaves your skin soft and fragrant!

Sources for information on Traditional Uses:

  • Johnson, Karen. Wildflowers of Churchill. Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature, 1987.
  • Keane, Kahlee. “Labrador Tea”. Northroots, October/November, 2009.
  • Marles, Robin et al. Aboriginal Plant Use In Canada’s Northwest Boreal Forest. Natural Resources Canada, 2008.

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