The shrubby New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) is a hardy, low-growing native plant that can spread like a ground cover or be pruned to fit a specific space. The combination of grey-green foliage, white flowers, and black fruits make a striking addition to backyard landscapes. Its leaves are edible and mostly used to make tea.
New Jersey tea earned its name during the American Revolution when the imported teas that had been favored were scarce. When dried and steeped in hot water, the New Jersey tea plant leaves were found to be an acceptable substitute.
It’s more readily known by its wide variety of common names, which include:
- Indian tea
- Wild snowball
This attractive, deciduous shrub is a member of the Buckthorn Family (Rhamnaceae) and has flowers that bloom primarily during mid to late summer.
The young or pubescent leaves of the New Jersey tea plant have a grayish tinge, while the stems are light green shade and covered with fine, white hairs.
The flowers consist of long tubes ending in five angular petals. In the center of each flower are five stamens and one prominent, white pistil. During July and August, small clusters of black fruits form.
Pollinators like hummingbirds and bees are frequent visitors to the clusters of tiny, fragrant white flowers. Still, New Jersey tea is particularly attractive and a host plant for a wide array of butterflies and caterpillars including the mottled dusky wing.
Its smaller size, 3-5’, and drought-tolerant nature make New Jersey tea an excellent choice for landscaping in drier areas.
Table of Contents
Is New Jersey tea edible?
The leaves of the New Jersey tea are edible and primarily used in tea.
Before the revolutionary war, the root of the New Jersey tea plant had a long history of culinary and medicinal uses by the indigenous people of North America.
While the dried leaves create a tea reminiscent of traditional Chinese teas, Indian tribes of North America used the root of New Jersey tea frequently to treat coughs, sore throats, and fevers.
It should be noted that while the leaves and roots of the New Jersey tea plant are edible, the flowers are best used externally for their fragrance and cleansing properties.
The black fruit is not edible and should be avoided.
Does New Jersey tea have caffeine?
Although tea made from New Jersey tea plant is similar in flavor to Chinese teas, it does not contain caffeine.
In fact, rather than being energizing, it has a slightly soothing effect.
New Jersey Tea uses
Current medicinal applications of New Jersey tea primarily use the roots and include treatments for bronchitis, asthma, and congestion.
The plant’s flowers can be crushed and added to water to create a lightly fragranced, soapy mixture that Native Americans used in bathing. They are now occasionally used to perfume water or as a mild cleansing agent.
In addition to its culinary and medicinal uses, the New Jersey tea plant can also be used to create dyes for fabrics.
Each part of the plant can produce a different color:
- The white flowers will produce a green dye
- The root a red dye
- The plant as a whole, a rusty cinnamon-colored dye
Where to find this plant in nature
The New Jersey tea is a native plant to North America and can be found in many areas of the Eastern United States. It’s particularly prevalent in the Chicago area, Missouri, across North Carolina where it grows like a wildflower, and Maine which is its northernmost limit.
Even with its slow growth rate, the New Jersey tea plant can spread like ground cover in the rocky soil of open meadows and savannas.
It can also be easily found in open wood, prairies, and glades.
How to grow New Jersey tea
New Jersey tea is extremely adaptable and grows well in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 – 8.
It can be grown from seed, transplanted, or from cuttings of established plants. If growing from seed, start inside and transplant during early summer for best results.
Spring is the ideal time for planting transplants or cuttings from more established plants. It’s best, however, to wait until you’re certain the danger of frost has passed.
New Jersey tea will do best with partial shade in areas where the weather gets extremely warm for long stretches, especially in the afternoon. Otherwise, aim for 6-8 hours of full sun for optimal growth.
Although New Jersey tea can tolerate many soil types, the best growth will occur in soil that’s sandy, full of loam, and well-drained. Just ensure proper drainage as the plant is susceptible to root rot if left in standing water.
As New Jersey tea grows and becomes well established, it will develop deep roots, including a tap root. This is what helps create its drought tolerance.
As it gets started, however, it will need regular watering rather than being left in dry soil. Watering at least once a week is advisable to ensure the roots don’t dry out.
Your New Jersey tea will also need regular pruning once it’s mature and has filled its designated area. Because of its propensity to grow suckers, it will spread and take up more than its fair share of space.