Labrador Tea (Cree: muskekopukwa, Dene: nagodhe)

Heather MacLeod, Heritage Presenter, Wapusk National Park & Manitoba North National Historic Sites

Wapusk News - Volume 5, Number 1, 2012

Dwarf Labrador Tea in flower Dwarf Labrador Tea in flower
© Parks Canada

The area in and around Wapusk National Park (NP) is recognized around the world for its biological diversity. The park protects important habitats and populations of polar bears, birds and plants. There are about 370 species of plants found in Wapusk NP. In this article, we’ll take a close-up look at a shrub known as Labrador Tea.

There are two species of this fragrant shrub which are widespread in the Churchill region, including within Wapusk NP. Both varieties have dull dark green leathery leaves with woolly undersides and lightly rolled edges, and they both produce neat, round clusters of white flowers. They are fairly easy to tell apart based on their size and where they grow.

The larger of the two species, Rhododendron groelandicum, grows within but rarely beyond the inland forested areas of Black and White Spruce. The dwarf variety, Rhododendron tomentosum, is a low shrub with smaller, slimmer leaves and is found hugging the sub-arctic tundra. If a walk in the tundra on a hot summer day produces a glorious fragrance, you will likely find the dwarf Labrador Tea crushed underfoot.

Many traditional uses for Labrador Tea have been reported (it’s important to note that improper preparation of the plant can cause health complications). Aboriginal people and early Europeans made a hot beverage with it. Medicinal uses for the plant have also been described. Various oral preparations, done by an experienced person, have been used to treat diarrhoea and stomach flu, chills and headache, infant teething pains and bad breath, while topical applications have been used to ease arthritis pain, reduce hair loss, eye infections, rashes, burns and itchy, chapped or sore skin. The shrub is also used to add aroma to the sweat lodge by pouring water boiled with the leaves onto the hot rocks.

An interesting practical use of Labrador Tea is to repel insects. The recipe is to crush fresh leaves, place them in a glass jar and cover them with olive, grape seed or canola oil. Place the container on a window ledge where it will get plenty of sun and warmth. After two weeks, strain the crushed leaves out of the liquid and you have organic and pesticide-free insect repellent that leaves your skin soft and fragrant!

Sources for information on Traditional Uses:

  • Johnson, Karen. Wildflowers of Churchill. Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature, 1987.
  • Keane, Kahlee. “Labrador Tea”. Northroots, October/November, 2009.
  • Marles, Robin et al. Aboriginal Plant Use In Canada’s Northwest Boreal Forest. Natural Resources Canada, 2008.