A northern campfire is not complete without a piping-hot cup of aromatic Labrador tea. It not only warms you up, but also provides a burst of vitamin C.
Labrador tea was and still is used as a substitute for black tea in the North. It is caffeine free and has a mild narcotic effect. It has an interesting forest-like flavour: a little bitter, a little astringent, a little spicy, and a little camphor-like.
Last spring, I was in Old Crow with the late Gwich’in Elder Ruth Welsh. We went up Crow Mountain with a group of friends to gather last autumn’s berries and one of Ruth’s favourite tradi- tional tea plants—Labrador tea, or as said in her Gwich’in lan- guage, Lidii masgit. Ruth said she preferred to gather and drink the smaller-leafed tea plant from high on the mountain because it tasted better, was cleaner, and the medicine was more potent.
The leathery green leaves with their woolly, rust-coloured underside are commonly gathered in the spring or throughout the summer and made as a tea for coughs and colds, relaxation, and sleeping problems. Inhaling the steam that rises from the tea is recommended to clear sinuses.
Juicy, light-green spruce tips are also used as tea and very popu- lar in the North. The vitamin-C-rich conifer tips have a unique tree-like lemon flavour, but are also reminiscent of the taste of tra- ditional green tea. The tips that are gathered are the new growth at the end of the needled branches of white spruce (Picea glauca) or black spruce (Picea mariana). The Gwich’in word for both white and black spruce is Ts’iivii.
Springtime spruce tips usually emerge in stride with the tasty vitamin-C- and vitamin-A-rich fireweed shoots. They taste great raw right off the tree, dried for a tea, canned, jellied, or frozen in the freezer.
Spruce tips are also excellent to break up lung congestion when used in a tea, steam, or as a wild food. Medicinally, spruce’s antiseptic properties help with pneumonia, whooping cough, and croup.
We know summer has truly arrived in the Yukon when the sweet scent of wild roses wafts all around us and their bright pink flowers draw us to their beauty.
On a hot day, drinking rose-petal sun tea not only keeps you hydrated, but gives the body extra energy to combat the heat. Using the sun’s fire energy is an ancient way to extract the subtle rose flavour and healing constituents from the petals for an aromatic, pleasant-tasting, solar infusion.
To prepare a solar infusion, place fresh or dried petals and water in a clear glass jar or teapot. Place in direct sunlight for several hours, allowing the warm, radiat- ing energy of the sun to gently heat the water, releasing the petals’ fragrance and other nutrients into the water. Drink freely and enjoy eating the petals that are floating in the tea.
Later in the season, after all the petals have dropped off the rose plant and gener- ally after the first frost, the vitamin-C-rich rosehips form and are harvested and dried for tea. Vitamin C is an essential nutrient most famous for its ability to strengthen the capillaries and connective tissues.
Three rosehips contain the same amount of vitamin C as one orange, and Rosa acicularis found in the Yukon has the highest vitamin-C content of any rosehip in the world. Rosehips are also full of bioflavo- noid, making the herb a truly heart-smart food and a wonderful tonic plant that can keep northerners healthy and warm throughout the long, cold, dark winters.
Rosehips are also high in healthful vitamins and minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium, niacin, phosphorus, potassium, protein, riboflavin, selenium, sodium, zinc, and vitamins A and E.
The playful scent of wild mint (Mentha arvensis) is refreshing, yet has a multi- dimensional aroma that has a subtle, earth-like smell and flavour that makes it a unique and interesting tea.
Drinking mint tea in the morning is stimulating and helps clear a tired mind; it can also deflect oncoming headaches and alleviate nausea due to motion sickness. Mint-leaf tea aids digestion and helps ease indigestion, gas, heartburn, ulcers, nausea, and colic.
Gather fresh mint leaves before the heat of the day. You can pluck each leaf by hand or use a pair of scissors and give the patch a little haircut. Don’t worry; it will grow back quickly.
Ingest yarrow tea (Achillea millefolium) the minute you feel a cold coming on and it may help stop it from taking hold. Yarrow is an immune stimulant and acts as a mild expectorant, helping get rid of excess phlegm. Gargling with yarrow helps prevent or heal a sore throat, inflamed gums, or mouth infections.
Yarrow makes great bush medicine. Prepared in a tea, the leaves and flowers of this plant have the ability to stop internal bleeding. Accidents on northern trails can happen, and this plant may make a difference if you have a long way back to ameni- ties. I consider yarrow one of nature’s best band-aids. For cuts and scrapes, chew up a few leaves to make a spit poultice and place over the affected area. A bleeding nose can be remedied by putting a gently chewed leaf up your nostril.
The boreal forest is teeming with so many great tasting medicinal teas. Getting out and respectfully gathering the plants invokes a wonderful feeling of well-being and a connection to a timeless northern ritual of being on the land.
How to prepare a wild herbal tea
A fresh- or dried-leaf infusion is the best method to prepare herbal tea. Break up the leaves into small pieces (this releases the aromatic oils) and add a pinch per cup. Pour boiling water over the leaves. Cover to avoid releasing the volatile oils and infuse for five to ten minutes. You can sweeten it up with a wee dollop of honey or birch syrup. Enjoy!
Drinking fresh or dried herbal tea is one of the simplest ways to receive the health benefits of wild plants. Herbal teas are caffeine free, nourish- ing, and relaxing to drink—almost all smell good. Ingesting herbal teas on a regular basis can help tone, soothe, nourish, and balance the body.
Drying herbs immediately after gathering them preserves their vitality. The dried herb should look energetic and true to its colour—not tired and spent, which happens when herbs are dried too hot and too fast or in direct sunlight. Optimal conditions for drying fresh herbs are out of direct sunlight in a well-ventilated area, with low light and low heat. The most common ways to dry herbs include drying bundles, drying racks, baskets and bags, dehydrators, and low-temperature oven drying.