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Wild Teas

Caleb Musgrave
Canadian Bushcraft (www.canadianbushcraft.ca)

Tea should not be overlooked as a food staple in the wilderness.

Offering nutritional value, helping to hydrate and encourage the drinking of boiled lake water (which often tastes quite flat and sometimes smoky). However, one does not need to buy a whole box of earl gray or orange pekoe for a trip to the wilderness. Mother Nature provides a great collection of useful teas. Some do indeed have an acquired taste, however some are delicious, and others are even hard to discern from store bought tea. However, let us make something clear; according to tea connoisseurs, only a beverage made from the Asiatic tea plant is an actual "tea". All others are most often called "tisanes". However, seeing as they are simply a hot herb beverage similar to tea, it is acceptable to refer to them all as "tea". There are countless varieties of wild teas out there, and many of them can be blended with another to make your own unique beverage. Seeing as many people seem to focus on the Boreal and Carolinian plants of the American North-east and Eastern Canada, let's list some plants found in these regions that are beneficial teas.

Wintergreen is a very popular one, used by many people. Though there is some toxicity to the plant (which is common in many wild plants, so please research all wild edibles thoroughly), the tea is nonetheless delicious, especially on cold winter mornings. It is an evergreen low plant that has red berries and can be found throughout the Boreal forests and even down the Appalachian mountains. The toxin in the plant is in the oil of the Wintergreen plant. This includes a potent aspirin-like chemical which helps relieve headaches and muscle pain. If you are allergic to aspirin, I would suggest avoiding the Wintergreen tea for simple safety.

White cedar (eastern Aborvitae) is one of the more well known "wild teas", due to its' history in Canada. Jacues Cartier is believed to have had his entire crew cured of scurvy after arrving in Canada by the Micmaq people when given cedar tea continually. This belief is impressed upon by the potent amount of vitamin C found in the needles and bark of the tree. Though cedar oil (a scummy sheen on the surface of the tea) is toxic and can cause painful side effects, simply pouring off the scum is all that needs to be done to make the tea safe. The true name of White cedar is Aborvitae, roughly translated from Latin this means "Tree of Life". Due to the vitamin C alone, the name was definitely well earned. This tea has a strong flavour and many people state that it is a required taste, however after several cups, with the occasional seasoning of maple sugar or honey, the tea definitely grows on one. Many pines, spruces and other non-poisonous conifer trees can make similar teas with strong amounts of vitamin C.
Simply boil the needles/scales with water, steep until cool enough to drink, pour off any film and enjoy.

In many parts of southern Ontario and the northern states a plant called New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) can be found. This was often used by settlers as a black tea substitute. Often found in central Ontario near the Pine Oak forests, this tea should definitely not be overlooked. Simply steeping the leaves in hot water for five minutes will produce a delicious and satisfactory tea.

Throughout the bogs, marshes and rocky islands of the Boreal forest slowly grows a very aromatic plant. Bog Labrador tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum) is an evergreen marsh and bog plant, with hairy undersides to its' leaves. Careful studying of photos and field guides (and a proper class on wild plants) can help make this plant stand out anywhere to those seeking it. Stories are told of the Hudson Bay Company sending men out into the Muskegs of James Bay and Hudson Bay to harvest great quantities of this plant. It would then be sold back to those men under the guise as "English Tea". This variety of Labrador tea is well known by many who study Russian and Native healing, as it tightens the intestines and colon, assisting with both diarrhea and constipation. It definitely helps settle a stomach. As it grows slowly, please only harvest a few leaves from each plant.
Steeping the leaves for up to ten minutes in very hot water, or boiling the leaves produces a tea that has a slight conifer aroma, blended with the taste of Black tea. There is some danger, where recent research has discovered that overdosing of Labrador tea could possibly cause paralysis, so drink in moderation.

One of the most interesting northern wild teas come from a peculiar and ancient plant. Native to eastern North America, the Sweetfern (Comptonia) is a very spicy scented herb. Looking similar to a fern, the name is easily understood, but it is in fact a deciduous shrub and not a fern. The tea is very soft and sweet, and makes a great mix with Labrador tea, which can often be found nearby.
Sweetfern enjoys sandy and well drained soil, and is often found near pine forests, which is common in the Boreal forest, making it easy to find Sweetfern while gathering Labrador tea. Many animals rely on Sweetfern, so please harvest conservatively.

So these plants all make wonderful teas, but are there others?
Most edible berries have leaves that can be produced into sweet teas.
My favourite is blueberry leaves steeped with some raspberry leaves.
Many edible flowers can be steeped into teas, as can many wild herbs such as mint. Research this interesting subject and start enjoying our bountiful tea pantry called the outdoors!