Plant of the Month: New Jersey Tea

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Photo Credit: Chris Sermons

By Chris Sermons

In 1999, when I moved to the family land that would eventually become Bio Way Farm, I brought two Rabbiteye Blueberry (Vaccinium virgatum) bushes that had been gifted to me. They grew well and soon thereafter I wanted to plant more. Having no suitable site in which to plant, I began clearing a very small wooded area between our two cabins.

At the time, I’d been a SCNPS member for a couple of years and had drunk the native plant Kool-Aid. The work I did with the Weed Wrench and chainsaw released plants that had been shaded and suppressed, one of which turned out to be a shrub I’d never seen before, New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus).

I was also a budding permaculturist who was looking to derive a yield and I was intrigued by the new plant. And, the more I read and researched, the more intriguing and useful New Jersey Tea turned out to be!

As the name implies, it is a tea plant that tastes like true tea (Camellia sinensis) but contains no caffeine (otherwise perhaps there would be a commercial market for it like the one that’s slowly developing around Yaupon Holly [Ilex vomitoria]). Apparently, the dried leaves were used during the Revolutionary War as a replacement for British tea. (As we all learned in school, discontent was brewing but tea was not!)

Nearby the then-capital, Philadelphia, the colonists found an abundant population of Ceanothus americanus in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, which gave the plant its common name. According to Samuel Thayer, in his book Nature’s Garden, the leaves can be used dried or fresh and are best picked early in the season. He describes the flavor as being between green tea and nettle tea.

The white flowers are showy especially when massed. As a generalist nectary, New Jersey Tea attracts a diverse assortment of pollinators like flies, bees, butterflies, and some of the coolest beetles I’ve ever seen.

The red roots are used as an alterative, and have an astringency that has traditionally made it useful as a mouthwash. A tincture known as Red Root is sold commercially, but the roots can also be used to prepare an infusion or decoction. Supposedly, a lotion made from the leaves can remove freckles.

It’s also one of the few native non-leguminous nitrogen fixers! There’s no cheaper form of fertilizer than that produced by plants whose roots have nodules that shelter bacteria that fix atmospheric nitrogen. This ability coupled with its large woody roots allow it to thrive in hot, dry sunny exposures with poor soil. Thus, you can plant it in problem areas where it’s difficult to get anything else to grow.

New Jersey Tea is one of two species of the Ceanothus family in the eastern United States, but out West there are popular ornamental species as well as species that make excellent teas and other beverages.

So, that’s a glimpse at New Jersey Tea, one of the most useful plants I know!

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