New Jersey Tea is a small native perennial woody shrub, growing to 3 feet in height on green stems with fine hair. Stems branch in the upper part and the bases become woody with age.
Leaves are narrowly elliptical, tapering to a obtuse or sub-cordate base and a blunt pointed tip at the other end. They may or may not have a stalk. Veins conspicuous; soft hair under; margins usually have teeth.
The inflorescence is a rounded branched cluster on a long stalk that is terminal or springs from the upper leaf axils. The cluster is usually composed of several separate umbels of flowers.
Flowers are very small 5-parted with white petals that are narrow and dipper shaped and flare outward from clawed bases. These are opposite the five stamens with gray anthers which surround a large white pistil with a white 3-lobed style. Stamens are exserted well above the plane of the flower. When the petals spread outward, the calyx lobes, also white, of the flower tube flex inward so as to enclose the female reproductive parts.
The fruit is a small three-celled drupe, depressed on the top, tuning black when mature. Inside each chamber is a yellowish nutlet, each nutlet producing 1 and sometimes two, brown ovoid stone-like seeds, flat on one side. These are ejected at maturity leaving the lower distinctive part of the calyx on the stalk. Seeds are fairly large, about 3 mm long and weigh about 7,600 to the ounce. For spring planting seeds need 70 days of cold stratification and must be scarified first in order to germinate.
Habitat: New Jersey Tea is drought tolerant and does best in full sun with well drained soils. It grows from a deep reddish taproot. When burned off in prairie areas, it re-sprouts energetically from the roots. It can become dominant in prairies where there are frequent burns. It is difficult to transplant and should be propagated by seed in late fall. It is susceptible to leaf spot.
Names: The genus name Ceanothus, is from the Greek keanothus which was used to refer to a spiny plant familiar to the Greeks. The species americanus, means 'from America', to differentiate it from several European species. The author name for the plant classification - 'L.' is for Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy. The common name is explained at the page bottom. 'Red-root' refers to the color of the root.
Above: The inflorescence consists of one to several umbels in a cluster atop a tall stem. 2nd Photo - the dipper-like petals spread outward while the calyx lobes in between them turn inward surrounding the reproductive parts.
Below: The tiny flowers, each on their own long stock give the appearance from a distance of "sea foam and mist" as Eloise Butler liked to say.
Below: 1st photo - Leaves have a blunt point, toothed margins and a well-defined vein structure. 2nd photo - The underside of the leaf has fine hair and the stem of the plant has fine curly hair.
Below: 1st photo - The deep reddish taproot of New Jersey Tea. This makes well establish plants difficult to transplant. 2nd photo - The previous year's seed head that has survived the winter presents and interesting arrangement.
Below: 1st photo - The 3-celled drupe which will open when mature to 3 stone-like seeds. 2nd photo - Almost ready to disperse seeds.
Below: Seeds of New Jersey Tea Inside each chamber of the black capsule is a yellowish nutlet which contains one or two of the brown seeds. Drawing from Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.
Notes: New Jersey Tea is indigenous to the Garden area. Eloise Butler catalogued it on Sept. 6, 1907. She added some plants in June 1917 that she collected in Glenwood Park (which partially surrounded the Garden), more in 1923. Some plants were added by Gardener Cary George in 1992 and '94. Growing primarily in soils of open woodlands and prairies, the plant is found in most counties of the eastern half of Minnesota where cultivation has not removed it. In North America it is plant of the eastern half. There are two species of Ceanothus found in Minnesota, this species and C. herbaceus, Oval-leaved New Jersey Tea. C. americanus is more widespread.
Lore and Use: In herbal medicine, the root was used as an astringent, expectorant, sedative and as an antispasmodic. The active principle is an acid named Ceanothine. Densmore (Ref. #5) reports the use of the root among the Minnesota Chippewa in treatment for a cough. They used 5 inches of root, grated, in one quart of water to produce a decoction. The dosage was one swallow. Mrs. Grieve (Ref. #7) reports that in Canada a cinnamon color dye was made for wool. The early East Coast settlers and the Indians used the plant to brew a tea-like beverage that had medicinal properties - hence the common name of New Jersey Tea. The leaves contain no caffeine.
Massachusetts clergyman Manasseh Cutler wrote in 1774: "The leaves of this shrub have been much used by the common people, in some parts of the country, in the form 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." (Fernald - Ref. #6).
Eloise Butler wrote of this plant: "The shrub-like Ceanothus or New Jersey Tea, seemingly covered with sea foam and mist, has drifted from the Atlantic to the valley of the Mississippi. This plant has historic interest as well as refined beauty. It is well that it grows in prodigal masses in wide distribution. For, after the Boston Tea Party, a brew of the leaves of the Ceanothus plenished the teapots of our revolutionary forebears." Published in the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune July 16, 1911.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"