New Jersey tea (ceanothus americanus)

This ornamental deciduous shrub grows wild in the dry plains, prairies, and open woodlands of the eastern and central United States. Its deep, woody roots allow the plant to survive repeated exposure to wildfires.

Native Americans made a pleasant, healing beverage from its leaves, a healing tea and dye from its reddish taproot, and a fragrant body wash from its saponin-rich flowers. European settlers learned from them to use the shrub’s leaves to make a tea, which they substituted for British-taxed black tea during the American War of Independence. New Jersey tea is a favorite food of deer and wild birds, and its flowers provide nectar for many types of butterflies.

New Jersey tea

Plant profile

Common Names: New Jersey Tea, Prairie Redroot, Redroot, Wild Snowball

Description: Deciduous shrub, up to 3 feet tall; alternate, finely toothed leaves are dark green on top with light green undersides; airy white flowers on racemes; three-lobed seedpods

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Rhamnaceae

Flowering: Early to midsummer

Parts Used: Roots, root bark, leaves, and flowers

Range/Habitat: North America; dry plains, prairies, and open woodlands

Medicinal use

The plant’s roots contain antiseptic and astringent tannins, as well as a blood-clotting agent. Native Americans made a tea from the roots and root bark to treat colds, fevers, intestinal problems, mouth sores, respiratory conditions, and skin irritations. Root teas and washes were also traditionally used to treat an enlarged spleen or lymph nodes, hemorrhoids, high blood pressure, nosebleeds, ulcers, and uterine hemorrhaging.

The leaves have been used to make a tea or gargle to relieve sore throats and mouth sores. Modern herbalists recommend preparations of this plant for conditions affecting the lymphatic system or liver.

Caution: Do not use this herb if you are pregnant or nursing.

Ornamental use

The puffy summer blooms of New Jersey tea are a welcome addition to mixed perennial borders or foundation plantings, where they will attract butterflies and birds.

How to grow it

New Jersey tea adapts well to either full sun or partial shade and light, well-drained soil. Prune the shrub in late winter to early spring to control its straggly habit. Gather the leaves when the plant is in full bloom, and dry them in the shade. Harvest a small amount of the roots when the shrub is dormant, in late fall or early winter. To propagate, take cuttings in summer and root them in a cold frame or greenhouse.