Many wild plants thrive in the coastal areas of B.C. One that was known and used for many years by First Nations people is Labrador tea. The Island Halkomelem people called it, Me'xwuchp. It is also known by other names, such as Hudson's Bay tea, James tea and Bog tea. This plant is a member of the Rhododendron family, though often mistakenly listed in the genus Ledum. Labrador tea is an evergreen shrub, approximately 1 meter tall, though smaller in the colder regions, having adapted to the harsh growing conditions and fewer nutrients. The plants have a sweet spicy aroma and grow most often in low-lying, boggy areas.
The leaves are leathery, long, rolled under at the sides, and have a fuzzy coating on the underside. The fuzz is glandular hairs, which help the plant to retain moisture and nutrients. The lower branches synthesize the oils responsible for the aroma and medicinal properties of the plants.
The English explorer, Sir John Franklin, and his crew set out for the Canadian Arctic coast in 1845. A year later the ships become ice-bound and 105 men died of scurvy and starvation in the Northwest Passage. During the explorations they had found a dwarf variety of Labrador tea growing on the shore. Had they known of the high content of vitamin C in this plant, it may well have helped them to survive.
First Nations people made use of this plant in many ways. They used Labrador tea leaves as flavouring for meat. In addition, the tea was helpful in treating wounds and sores because of its high tannin content. The tea was also useful as a drink to relieve pain during childbirth as it has a mild narcotic effect. It was also used as treatment for gastrointestinal problems and for treating coughs. When the Innu people traditionally followed the caribou, their children contributed to transporting the load by carrying dolls stuffed with Labrador tea.
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