Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Botanizing in Alaska: Labrador Tea

Labrador Tea is the common name for a few related species in the Rhododendron genus. In central Alaska I found specimens of R. tomentosum growing through foot-thick moss growths high on a mountain near the tree-line. Like most species in the genus, it produces lovely flowers.

The plants produce a range of interesting phytochemicals that have long been used by native communities. The interesting ethnobotanical history of the plant (as well as personal descriptions of its use in a tea from my wife), made me interested in collecting seeds or a live specimen of the plant for a more detailed ongoing examination.

On this trip, I learned that what can look like a small herbaceous plant can really be the tip of one branch of a very wide- and low-growing shrub. This makes it much harder to collect a live specimen without disrupting a large area of other potentially delicate plants. I chose not to do this. I also learned that the summer solstice is not the appropriate time of year to collect seeds from this species. The plants weren't in flower or even developing flower buds yet.

My next trip to the area will have to be during the local berry season in late autumn. Berry season in central Alaska means lots of interesting and diverse berries to taste, as well as a straightforward means to collect seeds from the plants that produce them.