Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Making Traditional Labrador Tea during cold and flu season - a recipe to try, if you dare

Labrador tea with flowers:  photo: Marian De Gier Design
therapeutic labrador tea: note fuzzy brown hairs underneath leaves

poisonous bog laurel, shiny leaves, no fuzzy hairs
Camosun bog is part of the territory of the Musqueam  X'muzk'i'um.  150 years ago,  in the Pacific Northwest, your grandma might have sent you to the Bog to pick Labrador tea if your little brother was coughing.  You had to be careful, because if you picked Kalmia instead, your little buddy would be vomiting. 


Now that many of us are suffering the effects of a seasonal cold or flu, a hot cup of Labrador Tea sounds very attractive... until you read this from the Alberta Plant Watch:
CAUTION: The tea can cause drowsiness and can act as a strong diuretic, cathartic or cause intestinal disturbances. The tea should be used infrequently and strong tea avoided.

Like other plants in the Heath family, it contains an andromedotoxin that can cause adverse effects including headache, cramps, indigestion, vomiting, and even death. It also contains narcotic substances and an active oil ledol that may have a restorative effect like caffeine but which can cause cramps and paralysis in large doses. 
Hmmm... in contrast, the  Herbal Companion makes it sound harmless.  Most websites warn the tea-drinker to enjoy no more than one cup.  Any grandmas out there to tell us how to use this herb properly? 


Modern city dwellers have forgotten how to use herbal infusions from the wild. We are more likely to step into a drug store than the forest and bog.  And science encourages a dispassionate skepticism about traditional herbs.   I was well educated in this attitude.  When I gave birth, exhausted, and on painkillers, I rudely refused the traditional herbal infusions provided by my mother-in-law, fearing drug effects on my baby (through breast feeding).  Meanwhile, I unquestioningly swallowed pills developed less than 70 years ago.  The traditional herbs had been given to post-partum women over the past 2000 years with no ill effect.

I would like to learn more about the ethnobotany of our place, before it is forgotten completely.  This  children's book resource: Making Tea at Grandma's from a First Nation in Yukon offers a method to brew Labrador Tea.  No metal containers for brewing and serving, apparently!  

By the way, it is best not to harvest Labrador Tea from Camosun bog without permission, as it is part of the Musqueam territory and Pacific Spirit Park.