Okay, Swamp Tea is not the drink of choice of the TV Swamp People. Perhaps you know, who those guys are – they are the group of alligator hunters living in the wild swamps of the Atchafalaya River Basin, in Southern Louisiana. It’s a place whose history stretches back to the 17th century. If you have never seen this reality series, it is a uniquely American story of a proud and skillful people fighting to maintain an ancient way of life in a rapidly modernizing world, despite the many perils and trials that stand in their way. But I digress.
Swamp tea, or Muskeeg Anibi, is botanically named – Ledum glandulosum – and whose common name is Labrador Tea. It has many names such as Hudson Bay tea, muskeg tea, bog tea, and marsh tea. In the Tlingit language the plant is called s’ikshaldéen. Its Ojibwe name, Muskeegobug Aniibi, translates directly as “Swamp-growing” tea. It is named after the swamps of Greenland and Labrador where it grows in profusion. It is found from Greenland to the Rockies, and Northwest coast. Anyone ready for a road trip???
Labrador tea is described as a straggly and aromatic evergreen shrub that grows in the peaty soils of bogs, muskegs, swamps, and damp conifer forests. The shrub has thick leathery leaves that grow from 2-5 cm long. The leaf edges curl under and their wooly undersides are either white – when young or rusty when mature. White flowers form on the shrub in clusters from May to July. Both the leaves and flowers can be used. The leaves are available for harvest all year around.
Labrador tea has been used by indigenous people for thousands of years. The plant was presumably used as a tonic by First Nations people. The leaves are fragrant and were used as a beverage and medicine by many tribes such as the Quinault and Makah in western Washington, the Potawatomi in the Great Lakes region, and the Iroquois in the Northeast. This tea was as popular among tribes as green tea, chai and black teas are to Western culture today. It is thought that it was the Europeans who introduced the idea of using the plant more commonly as a tea. In the fur-trading era, the French Canadian “coureurs-de-bois” used Labrador tea to extend their supplies of black tea.
The leaves and the flowers can both be used for tea, either fresh or dried, and the leaves can be picked all year. To make the tea (but really should be called an infusion), you can steep one heaping teaspoonful of leaves or flowers per person in boiling water for 5 minutes. The color turns a clear, pale amber orange. The resulting cup has no caffeine, and it is said to have a mild narcotic effect. It has been described as having an “interesting forest like flavor, a little bitter, a little astringent, a little spicy and a like camphor – like. But for me… I’m not so sure. Does it sound like your “cup of tea”?