Historical References

Below are a collection of quotes from 1768 onwards about Ceanothus’ use as a tea substitute and other facts about the plant.

“Tea made from a plant or shrub (Ceanothus americanus) grown in Pearsontown about 20 miles from Portland, Maine, was served to a circle of ladies and gentlemen in Newbury Port, who pronounced it nearly, if not quite, its equal in flavor to genuine Bohea tea. So important a Discovery claims, especially at this Crisis, the Attention of every Friend of America. If we have the Plant nothing is wanting but the Process of curing it, to have Tea of our own Manufacture. If a Receipt cannot be obtained, Gentlemen of Curiosity and Chymical Skill would render their Country eminent Service, if by Experiments they would investigate the best method of preparing it for use.” (Boston Gazette, November 21st, 1768)

“It is with pleasure we can inform such of the fair sex, who are attached to Bohea Tea, that a shrub, supposed by many to be the same that produces the tea we have from the East Indies, grows in this town. Large quantities have been cured, and it is scarce known by smell or taste from the real Bohea. [September 6, 1775] “(Nourse, 1889)

“The peculiar condition of the colonies rendered privations of this kind a great additional evil of that memorable struggle; almost everything in the shape of the necessaries and luxuries of life came then from the Old World. Several native plants were prepared at that time to take the place of the prohibited souchong and bohea; the ‘New Jersey tea,’ for instance, a pretty shrub, and the ‘Labrador tea,’ a low evergreen with handsome white flowers. Certainly it was only fair that the women should have their share of privations in the shape of pins and tea, when Washington and his brave army were half clad, half armed, half starved, and never paid;…” — (Cooper, 1848)

Domestic Tea.—Our esteemed friend, J. B. to whom the readers of the Courier have been often indebted for acceptable and useful communications and contributions, and especially in the department of Botany, sends us specimens of a tea of home growth, which is thus described: “Ceonothus Americanus, New Jersey tea—called by the country people Yellow Root—grows abundantly in every district of the State. Dry the leaves in the shade and use a little more than half of the green tea. I have used this tea for the last two months. It is the best substitute for black tea that I have ever met with.” The specimens thus presented and avouched were gathered by David Riker. It will be a favor to many readers if any Botanical friend can furnish a full description and materials for identifying this plant. We shall be pleased also, to receive reports of other cases of its trial and use, and of any applications of our own Flora to any household purposes, or to new uses. — (SAVANNAH [GA] REPUBLICAN, June 26, 1862, p. 1, c. 2, “Charleston Courier”)

(Editor’s note: During the Civil War [1861-1865] the price of Chinese tea had climbed to $8-$12 per pound, or roughly $200-$300 per pound in modern currency. As such there was a great deal of editorial literature published at around this time about all sorts of tea substitutes.)

CATALOG OF TREES, PLANTS AND ANIMALS. Algonquin language; Ojibway dialect. With the English names for the same. … Ne bish un — Trees with broad leaves. … Ke teg ge manito — New Jersey tea (red root). (Haines, 1888)

During the war for independence, the leaves of New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus Americanus L.) which had at least the merit of being very common. It is quite probable that its virtues had been indicated by the natives. It does not contain theine but a very minute proportion of a bitter crystalline alkaloid, ceanothine. According to Porcher, “when properly dried, it is aromatic and not unpleasant . . certainly a good substitute for indifferent black tea.” — (Drink Plants of the North American Indians, 1896)

CEANOTHUS AMERICANUS L. Red Root, Indian Tea. Tabe-hi (Omaha-Ponca). The leaves were used by all the tribes to make a drink like tea. The taste is something like that of the Asiatic tea and is much better than that of the South American yerba mate. On the buffalo hunt when timber was scarce, the great gnarled woody roots of this shrub, often much larger than the part above ground, were used for fuel. (Gillmore, 1919)

The Lakhota name “uŋpaŋ´ tawo´ťe” literally means “female elk’s foot.” (Roges, 1920)

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus L.), “kitû’ki mänitu” [spotted manitou]. The dried leaves of New Jersey Tea are used as a substitute for Ceylon black tea by the Menomini. Although my informant could not say, it is quite possible that the tribe learned this use from the civil war veterans among their number, who discovered it during the war. (Smith 1923) (ä, as in flat; ê, as in bet; â, as in raw; û, as in luck; au, as ow in how; u, a whispered terminal u; ai, as in aisle; x, a whispered aspirant; î, as in bit; ‘, glottal stop)

The Meskwaki name “kitû´ki ma´nitu” literally means “spotted snake spirit.” (Smith 1928)

(Editor’s Note: “Bohea” tea in Colonial America simply meant “English Tea.” It was not until many years later that “Bohea” took on the connotation of “inferior,” in reference to tea that was picked late in the season. Some later authors appear to have confused this context. Additionally “Bohea” is the name of a cultivar of tea.)

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