Often growing in large groves, and especially wetter, boggier areas, Labrador Tea, Rhododendron groenlandicum, puts on quite a show with special, interesting white flowers. These grow in large clusters at the top of the plant, and the numerous, conspicuous stamens sticking out of every flower makes them look dense and interesting.
One dead giveaway of the plant is that the leaves curl under at the edges. This gives the leaves a long, narrow appearance, when in fact the leaves are oval. They are also white underneath when new, and they turn brown underneath in the fall.
This is a plant of the more northern wet forests, but there are at least 3 similar related Rhododendron species. As a family, they can be found down as far south as Wyoming.
It’s called a “tea”, and you can indeed make tea with the leaves, but watch out. The leaves contain andromedotoxins, a poisonous glycoside (so do other members of the Rhododendron family, too). This is toxic to livestock, and sheep in particular. You need to boil the tea a LONG time to destroy these alkaloids. Otherwise, the tea can cause severe drowsiness, vomiting, low blood pressure, urination or bowl movements and loss of coordination.
Despite this, Indigenous peoples brew the leaves as a beverage, in particular to make a medicinal herbal tea to help with coughs and colds. Botanical extracts from the leaves have been used to create natural skin care products by companies in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador. Others use Labrador Tea to spice meat by boiling the leaves and branches in water and then soaking the meat. It was even used in beers in Germany in the 1800’s to increase potency, but was eventually banned.
See more beautiful and fascinating flowers of Kananaskis Country here!