COLUMN: Tea of a different kind

Mike Lascelle says there are innumerable botanical teas to drink, including some native to Canada

Michael Lascelle has a thirty-year background in horticulture.

Michael Lascelle has a thirty-year background in horticulture.

People have been drinking green and black teas produced from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant since the third century AD, with Portuguese traders introducing it to the western world sometime in the early 1600s.

Coffee was domesticated around the same period in the Middle East, Turkey and North Africa – with the roasted seeds of Coffea arabica producing that delectable morning beverage that I know I can’t live without.

And while these two staples dominate the cafés and breakfast tables of many, there are innumerable botanical teas available that have either been used historically or are only prevalent in certain regions of the world.

The first that comes to mind is mate or yerba mate, which is actually derived from the dried leaves of a South American holly called Ilex paraguariensis (pictured below). It is popular in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Paraguay and is usually sipped through a flared metal straw that helps to filter out the rather chunky brew.

Mate is high in caffeine, with the leaves of male plants being more potent and it has an herbal flavour with some green tea overtones, although the biggest obstacle for the non-initiated will be its rather thick-bodied, twiggy appearance.

Closer to home and Canadian tradition is Labrador, or Trapper’s tea, a tasty hot beverage concocted from the leaves of a bog-loving shrub, Ledum groenlandicum (now classified as Rhododendron groenlandicum). This evergreen plant is native to the northern hemisphere of Europe and North America, as well as Greenland. While it was enjoyed by indigenous peoples prior to colonization, this tea was also marketed by the Hudson’s Bay Company throughout western Canada. I can personally attest to the pleasant flavour of this beverage, which I think has some Earl Grey overtones. Early Europeans also used Labrador Tea to enhance their Gruit ales, or flavoured beers, at least until hops (Humulus lupulus) came into standardized use.

Next on our list of hot herbal beverages is Oswego, or Bergamot tea, which comes to us from a wild Beebalm species called Monarda fistulosa. It is native throughout much of North America and was used as a medicinal and culinary tea by many first nations. The medicinal properties include some relief from colds, stomach aches, fevers and, I quote, “female disorders.”

This species makes a nice ornamental with its pale lavender flowers, although it is a bit aggressive. While it is pleasant tasting, pregnant (or nursing) woman and children should avoid its use.

Our last herbal tea also has close ties to the early exploration of Canada, albeit by sea. New Zealand tea tree, or Leptospermum scoparium, may have been brought to our shores as a tea or scurvy preventative (due to its high vitamin C content) that was reluctantly drunk by the sailors under the command of Captain James Cook. It is not reported to have been very tasty, hence the reason no one came back for seconds. New Zealand Tea tree is occasionally available here as a tender reddish-pink-flowered ornamental called ‘Red Damask’, which has double blooms.

While we’re on the subject of refreshing beverages, it’s still not too late for you to purchase a ticket (for $20 at Triple Tree Nursery, Amsterdam Garden Centre or Grow and Gather Nursery) to this Sunday’s Country Garden Tour – not only will we get access to eight stunning private gardens, but you’ll also receive snacks and something to drink, as well as all the good karma that goes with sponsoring the Sunshine Foundation’s ‘Dreams for Kids’, the recipient of all proceeds.

Mike Lascelle is a local nursery manager and gardening author. Email him at

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