Wild Edible Plants: New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus Americanus)

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus Americanus) Flowers

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus Americanus) is probably one of our most famous of the native substitutes for oriental tea, and many writers speak of it as admirable, while others find it inferior. It contains no caffeine and is, therefore, not “bracing.” According to a tradition at least, this tea was in great demand during the American Revolution. The learned Manasseh Cutler, writing in 1774, said:

The leaves of this shrub have been much used by the common people, in some parts of the country, in the room of India tea; and is, perhaps, the best substitute the country affords. They immerse the fresh leaves in a boiling decoction of the leaves and branches of the same shrub, and then dry them with a gentle heat. The tea, when the leaves are cured in this way, has an agreeable taste, and leaves a roughness on the tongue somewhat resembling that of the bohea tea.

New Jersey Tea wasn’t always called that. It was Red Root Tea until the Boston Tea Party. With no tea from China via England colonists turned to other sources of “tea.” Two natives became substitutes, a particular goldenrod and Red Root. Since Red Root was abundant in New Jersey the name stuck.

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus Americanus)While thought of as a northern plant New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus Americanus)  ranges from Quebec down to Central Florida west to Texas and north to Minnesota, essentially the eastern half of North America. While the colonists used it for tea the native had many medicinal uses for it.  In fact, research recently showed the roots have a blood-clotting agent. And yes, the root is red.

New Jersey Tea is a shrubby Buckthorn perennial to a yard high with many branches. A native to North America, its stems are light green with a fine covering of white hairs. Twigs reddish-brown.  It leaves are lance shaped, twice as long as wide with three prominent veins going from the stem end to the tip, like ribs. The flower cluster is somewhat cone shaped, elongated and rounded. Each flower has a long slender tube terminating in five folded calyxes which open into five hatchet-shaped petals with slender bases that spread outward. A large white pistil and five stamens with dark gray anthers is in the center of the flower. These flowers are pleasantly fragrance. Blooming lasts about a month in early summer in northern climes, sooner in Florida. Leaves are gathered when the plant is in full boom. Dry them thoroughly in the shade and then used like oriental tea, tastes similar to Bohea Tea.  It does not have caffeine. The berries are NOT edible, per se.

As far as fauna, insects know a good thing when the see it. Among the wasps, Ceanothus Americanus is visited by Mud Daubers, Beetle Wasps, Sand Wasps, Spider Wasps, and Crabronine wasps. Fly diners include Syrphid flies, Thick-Headed flies, Tachinid flies, Blow flies, and Muscid flies. Caterpillars of the Spring/Summer Azure butter  and the skipper Mottled Duskywing feed on the foliage. The caterpillars of some moths also feed on it including the Sulfur Moth, the Red-Fronted Emerald and the Broad-Lined Erastria. Sometimes Tumbling Flower Beetles are found on its flowers, which they eat. Mammals visitors include deer, elk, rabbits and livestock.

Wild Edible New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus Americanus)

Ceanothus is from a Greek name for a corn thistle, keanothos. Americanus  means “of America.” Other common names besides Red Root are Wild Snowball, Mountain Sweet and Wild Lilac.

Edible Parts

  • Leaves
  • Root
  • Root bark

A refreshing and stimulating tea is made from the dried leaves, it is a good substitute for china tea though it does not contain caffeine.The leaves are gathered when the plant is in full bloom and are dried in the shade.

Uses

Native Americans picked the leaves of red root and then dried them for medicinal purposes. The early European settlers discovered that the leaves produce an astringent taste similar to that of black tea imported from Asia. They also learned the herbal properties of the plant and documented its uses in the treatment of a diverse variety of diseases. Physicians later incorporated its use into homeopathy.

Relieves Digestive Problems

Red root has been linked to many health benefits, but practitioners of homeopathic medicine have long believed that its medicinal properties best treat disorders of the digestive system and nearby organs, such as the liver and the spleen. It is also believed to promote evacuation of the bowels.

Homeopathy relies on the principle of “like cure like”. Abdominal pains, shortness of breath, painful menstrual discharge, urinary frequency, and the like are all symptoms related to the digestive system. Homeopathic physicians have documented the efficacy of red root in treating these medical signs.

Alleviates Respiratory Illnesses

In addition to its homeopathic uses, red root is extensively utilized in folk medicine practices of Native Americans and European colonists, especially to alleviate whooping cough. The former had been using the plant as an herbal medication long before the latter even learned of its agreeable taste.

Through the centuries, herbalists have noticed that red root works as a mucolytic agent when consumed as tea. Compared to other known expectorants back in the day, red root lowers the viscosity of mucus and promotes the expulsion of phlegm from the respiratory tract.

Shows Antibacterial Properties

The medicinal properties of red root are attributed to its phytochemical content. This plant species contains organic compounds that are purported to be antibacterial in nature, such as lignins, tannins, and the unique compound ceanathine.

These antibacterial phytochemicals have been observed to help treat sexually transmitted diseases, notably syphilis and gonorrhea. Also, it appears to lessen frequency of canker sores and prevent formation of tooth decay when used as a mouth wash.

Facts & History of New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus Americanus)

Tea made from a plant or shrub (Ceanothus americanus) grown in Pearsontown about 20 miles from Portland, Maine, was served to a circle of ladies and gentlemen in Newbury Port, who pronounced it nearly, if not quite, its equal in flavor to genuine Bohea tea. So important a Discovery claims, especially at this Crisis, the Attention of every Friend of America. If we have the Plant nothing is wanting but the Process of curing it, to have Tea of our own Manufacture. If a Receipt cannot be obtained, Gentlemen of Curiosity and Chymical Skill would render their Country eminent Service, if by Experiments they would investigate the best method of preparing it for use.- Boston Gazette, November 21st, 1768

It is with pleasure we can inform such of the fair sex, who are attached to Bohea Tea, that a shrub, supposed by many to be the same that produces the tea we have from the East Indies, grows in this town. Large quantities have been cured, and it is scarce known by smell or taste from the real Bohea. [September 6, 1775] Nourse, 1889

The peculiar condition of the colonies rendered privations of this kind a great additional evil of that memorable struggle; almost everything in the shape of the necessaries and luxuries of life came then from the Old World. Several native plants were prepared at that time to take the place of the prohibited souchong and bohea; the ‘New Jersey tea,’ for instance, a pretty shrub, and the ‘Labrador tea,’ a low evergreen with handsome white flowers. Certainly it was only fair that the women should have their share of privations in the shape of pins and tea, when Washington and his brave army were half clad, half armed, half starved, and never paid;… - – Cooper, 1848

Domestic Tea.—Our esteemed friend, J. B. to whom the readers of the Courier have been often indebted for acceptable and useful communications and contributions, and especially in the department of Botany, sends us specimens of a tea of home growth, which is thus described: “Ceonothus Americanus, New Jersey tea—called by the country people Yellow Root—grows abundantly in every district of the State. Dry the leaves in the shade and use a little more than half of the green tea. I have used this tea for the last two months. It is the best substitute for black tea that I have ever met with.” The specimens thus presented and avouched were gathered by David Riker. It will be a favor to many readers if any Botanical friend can furnish a full description and materials for identifying this plant. We shall be pleased also, to receive reports of other cases of its trial and use, and of any applications of our own Flora to any household purposes, or to new uses. - SAVANNAH [GA] REPUBLICAN, June 26, 1862, p. 1, c. 2, “Charleston Courier”

(Editor’s note: During the Civil War [1861-1865] the price of Chinese tea had climbed to $8-$12 per pound, or roughly $200-$300 per pound in modern currency. As such there was a great deal of editorial literature published at around this time about all sorts of tea substitutes.)

During the war for independence, the leaves of New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus Americanus L.) which had at least the merit of being very common. It is quite probable that its virtues had been indicated by the natives. It does not contain theine but a very minute proportion of a bitter crystalline alkaloid, ceanothine. According to Porcher, “when properly dried, it is aromatic and not unpleasant . . certainly a good substitute for indifferent black tea.”Drink Plants of the North American Indians, 1896

CEANOTHUS AMERICANUS L. Red Root, Indian Tea. Tabe-hi (Omaha-Ponca). The leaves were used by all the tribes to make a drink like tea. The taste is something like that of the Asiatic tea and is much better than that of the South American yerba mate. On the buffalo hunt when timber was scarce, the great gnarled woody roots of this shrub, often much larger than the part above ground, were used for fuel.Gillmore, 1919

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus L.), “kitû’ki mänitu” [spotted manitou]. The dried leaves of New Jersey Tea are used as a substitute for Ceylon black tea by the Menomini. Although my informant could not say, it is quite possible that the tribe learned this use from the civil war veterans among their number, who discovered it during the war.Smith 1923

Where Does New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus Americanus) Grow?

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus Americanus) Growing Area

How To Identify New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus Americanus)

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus Americanus) Leaf
Leaf
– Alternate, simple, 2 to 4 inches long, ovate, with a serrate margin, sunken veins, pubescent below.

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus Americanus) Flower
Flower
– White, growing in dense rounded panicles, found in leaf axils, appearing in mid to late summer.

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus Americanus) Fruit
Fruit
– Dry rounded capsules with 3 lobes.

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus Americanus) Twig with Leaves
Twig – Slender, green to brown, somewhat pubescent, with a large white pith; bundle scars are singular; buds are small and ovoid and may be somewhat pubescent.

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus Americanus) Bark
Bark – Initially green and later developing shallow splits and turning brown.

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus Americanus) Form
Form – A low shrub, up to approximately 3 feet tall.

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