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WSU/Pend Oreille Extension introduced the Sense of Place series in 1999, with a focus on local landscape and natural history of Pend Oreille County, Washington. A partnership with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians Natural Resources Department has allowed us to expand this program through EPA funding to include more classes, a newsletter and this website.

Teas from the Pend Oreile Wild

by Wilma Cullooyah & Carol Mack

It’s true that when you are thirsty, nothing beats water. But people have had reason to flavor water with various substances from time immemorial. Beverages brewed from plants have been used for a morning wake-up, an evening calmer, a cold day warmer-upper or a hot day cool down. They may be for medicinal purposes, ceremony, to accompany a meal, to mark a quiet time alone, or enjoy camaraderie around a teapot.

Over the last several decades, many of us have developed the habit of reaching for a carbonated soda as our drink of choice. We hear a lot about the increase in obesity and diabetes. With nine teaspoons of sugar per 12-ounce can of cola, it is easy to see how these heavily sweetened waters contribute to our health problems. It may be that refined sugars are such a recent phenomenon, relatively speaking, that our taste buds simply are not equipped to know when we have had too much. And artificial sweeteners probably confuse our “sugar-overload sensors” all the further.

The botany class we taught last spring started us on the adventure of brewing wild teas. With a few good guides in hand as to which trees, shrubs and flowers are safe for this purpose, we have had a wonderful time over the last year exploring the variety of flavors growing wild around us. (Willie’s favorites so far are the needles from a variety of conifer branch tips...Carol likes brewing up snowbrush leaves.)

At one of our classes last year, the participants stood around stripping the bark from a young lodgepole pine (cut as part of a thinning project), scraping off the cambium layer and tasting its sweetness. Several hundred years ago, people here looked forward eagerly to this late spring treat. As we nibbled that day, we found it hard to imagine what it must have been like when “sweet” was limited to what was found in ripe berries, cooked camas, tree sap, and other natural sources. Sweetness comes so “cheaply” now that it is hard to be impressed with scraped pine cambium.

We have found that a few of the teas suggested in the books below have very subtle
flavors, (we can’t tell them apart!) while others are very distinctive. Perhaps we have lost some of the ability to appreciate faint flavors as well as faint sweetness. But the fun comes in trying, and for every reject, we have found several to add to our list of favorites. “Learn to taste with your smell,” says Willie.

We know that drinking wild “teas” has a major health benefit if it keeps us from reaching for that can of soda. But we suspect the health benefits go beyond that. Some teas, like rose hips or nettles, are especially high in
particular vitamins or minerals, and have traditionally served as a source for these nutrients during seasons when they are not readily available. Some teas may have tonic or medicinal properties as well as being enjoyable beverages. And, of course the time spent outside on a sunny, fragrant hillside collecting ingredients is therapeutic even before the first sip. Collecting tea ingredients from the wild is one more way to connect to the landscape that surrounds us and appreciate it from a new angle, and with a difference sense.

But there are some necessary warnings before you collect. First, be sure of your plant identification—there are toxic plants that grow around here, some of them deadly. Second, do not gather from roadsides or other areas where plants may have been sprayed with pesticides. Third, taste teas in very small
quantities to begin with until you know how you will react—individuals vary in allergies and digestive tolerances to any new food or drink. Fourth, don’t drink large quantities of a favorite until you have researched the constituents and know they are safe on a daily basis—like most everything else, variety and moderation are key. And last, don’t harvest plants from public lands without proper permits, or
private lands without permission—and gather in ways that do not damage plant populations.

Some teas to try... (check a wildflower guide for ID help.)

Snowbrush Ceanothus velutinus

Snowbrush is common in dry sunny clearings. It has shiny evergreen leaves, available all year, and creamy flowers in June. It is also known as mountain balm, sticky laurel, wild lilac, and Oregon tea—which hints at its use as a tea plant. The leaves can be used anytime for fresh tea, but for best flavor, gather while flowers are in bloom, dry, and use like black tea.

Engelmann Spruce Picea englemannii

Gather the fresh young needles that grow from the tips of branches in spring for the best tea (with a bit of a cola flavor.) Needles can be used either fresh or dried, a tablespoon or more to a cup of boiling water.

Oregon Grape Berberis

Gather ripe berries, rinse, and simmer with a little added water until fruit breaks up. Crush and strain, sweeten to taste, refrigerate, and use as a concentrate for cold drinks. The new, soft leaves can be also dried and brewed for a faintly lemon drink.

Western Larch Larix occidentalis

Also known as tamarack, this is our only deciduous conifer—it’s the one whose needles turn gold and light up our October hillsides. Pick the knobby spur branches, each with a cluster of needles, and brew fresh for a resinous and pungent-scented tea.

Kinnikinnick Arctostaphylos uva-ursi

An evergreen groundcover, Kinnikinnick has pink, bell-like flowers in June that mature to shiny red berries in late summer. It is a dual-purpose plant. The berries can be simmered, mashed, and juice extracted for a cold drink concentrate. The leaves, with high tannin content, can be dried for a flavorful tea. (But don’t drink in quantity for an extended period, and don't drink while pregnant.)

Yerba Buena Satureja douglasii

This trailing member of the mint family is easily confused with twinflower, another common forest dweller. It can be distinguished by its white flowers and the minty, citrusy smell of a crushed leaf. Long used by Wilma’s mother as “Indian tea,” it has become one of our favorites. Carol thought she had never seen the plant before Willie showed her some; now she finds it is all over her place. Funny how that works… The leaves are most flavorful fresh, but can also be dried for a year-round taste of summer.

Stewart, Hilary. Drink in the Wild. Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, B.C. 2002
Parish, Roberta, Ray Coupe and Dennis Lloyd. Plants of Southern Interior British Columbia. Lone Pine Press, 1996
Vance, Nan C., Melissa Borsting, David Pilz, and Jim Freed, 2001 Special Forest Products--Species Information Guide for the Pacific Northwest Pacific Northwest Research Station  PNW-GTR-513.  Available online at www.fs.fed.us/pnw/pubs/gtr513

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