Field notes: Gathering Labrador Tea
It’s a soaking wet day, in that in-between space that’s beyond the end of summer but not quite deep fall yet. The rain pours down in sheets, so heavy that not even the dog wants to get up from his cozy bed to go outside.
But my legs are restless. I’ve been stuck behind the computer for hours and need to get out of the house, out of town, if even for just the afternoon. So I rouse Togiak reluctantly from his days-long rain nap, load the basket and dry bag up with snips, gloves, bear spray, and the berry bucket for good measure, and we head out the door.
Togs and I cruise out the road, splashing through muddy potholes in search of turnoffs for wandering and botanical treasures to be found along the way. By this point in the season, much of the leafy green plant life has alreadybegun to turn color and melt away from the earth in these drenching rains. But one green leaf outlasts them all - sometimes even into winter. The leaf I’m keeping an eye out for is that of the low, shrubby, incredibly aromatic Labrador Tea.
We opt for a bumpy old overgrown turnoff that looks like promising habitat for Labrador Tea and hopefully some late season berries, and park the rig. It’s still dumping, so I’m decked out in rubber raingear head to toe. Having attuned his senses to the possibility of sniffing out any number of deer or squirrels, Togiak tears off into the surrounding woods and muskeg to find all the smells and hidden animal bones. Its time to embrace the wetness and explore the magic of the spongey wet-meadow muskeg in the fall.
My boots make a loud audible squishing sound as I muck my way into the boggy muskeg, careful not to sink into an unsuspecting waist-deep hole. The waterlogged ground is vibrant with the earthy reds, oranges, and yellows of summer’s plant life preparing to go out in one final brilliant bang before tucking in for the winter season. It smells like damp earth, decaying wood, musky wet grasses. Heavenly. Over here I spot a patch of carnivorous sundew plants waiting patiently for an unsuspecting insect to land in their sticky traps. And over there the dwarf dogwood is starting to turn a gorgeous color of sunset orange-red. Mosses, lichens, and freaky-funky plants of all shapes and colors make this unique Dr. Suess-esque ecosystem a fascinating exploration.
Eventually my boots squish their way into just what I’m looking for: a lush carpet of leathery green shrubby Labrador Tea. I crush a few leaves between my fingers and take in the heady meadow-sweet aroma. These leaves are still looking fresh and smelling incredible. I take out my snips and squat down for the meditative work of harvesting Labrador Tea. Snipping just a few leaves here, a few leaves there, always cutting the stem just above a leaf node to encourage the plant to continue growing robust and bushy. I make my way through the patch slowly, slowly filling my basket.
These plants are an ecological wonder, putting down roots in some of the most inhospitably acidic, wet soil and holding their green leaves through all the phases of wet weather in Southeast Alaska - rain, sleet, snow, and beyond. So long as the snow is low enough to spot them in winter, you can continue collecting Labrador Tea leaves nearly all year long.
Traditionally local Tlingit people have called this plant s'ikshaldéen, and have used it for thousands of years as a soothing tea, flavorful spice, and medicinal herb. Labrador Tea, s'ikshaldéen, also sometimes called Hudson Bay Tea, holds anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties in addition to its beautifully refreshing natural aroma, and its leaves are naturally rich in vitamin C.
Today’s fresh harvest will make its way into the dehydrator first before lending its scent and botanical properties to our muscle and joint relieving Aches & Pains Ointment, as well as the fragrant, earthy Rainforest Bath Salts.
The rain has begun to soak through my jacket down my wrists and into my hood just as Togiak circles back around to my picking spot. I look at my brimming basket of fresh green leaves, and glance back at the leafy patch of muskeg I just worked through. It’s as though I was never even here, the Labrador Tea remains so thick and bushy. I make a quick GPS note of our location so I can re-visit next year and see how the patch is growing. Togi is ready for new terrain to sniff, and I’m ready to find some juicy rain-saturated late season berries. We squish our way toward the forest’s edge for one last forage, in search of sweet ruby-red and deep blue jewels to fill up our bellies for the soggy ride home.