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Species Spotlight: New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus)


New Jersey Tea Seedling


Interesting Facts:

  • The genus name, Ceanothus, comes from the ancient Greek “keanothos” relating to some plants in the Buckthorn family and is translated as “spiny plant”.

  • Dried leaves were used as a tea substitute, albeit a caffeine-free tea, during American Revolutionary War times, hence the common name.

  • New Jersey Tea is a versatile dye plant, flowers yield a green dye, roots yield a red dye, a dye produced by the entire plant is cinnamon-colored.

  • Flowers are rich in saponins and will form a gentle lather when crushed and mixed with water.

Native Environment/Plant Information:

New Jersey Tea is a compact, dense rounded shrub in the Buckthorn family. It generally grows 2-3 feet tall, occasionally to 4 feet. New Jersey Tea has a stout taproot, thick, woody, red roots that grow deep and help it withstand droughty conditions, but this also makes it difficult to move once it is established. Young twigs are noticeably yellow in color and stand out in winter. Leaves are alternate or opposite, medium to dark green and grey and hairy underneath. The upper portion of the stems terminate in panicles of flowers. Axillary panicles also form from the axils of upper leaves. The flower panicles are cylindrical clusters one to two inches long comprised of many tiny (~1/8-1/4” across), fragrant, white flowers. Each flower has 5 white sepals, 5 white petals, 5 stamens and a pistil. When pollinated, capsules containing 3 are formed. These capsules become brown to black and mechanically eject their seeds up to several feet when ripe.

New Jersey Tea is most commonly found in open, deciduous woods, woodland edges, oak savannas and meadows. It favors clearings and barrens in dry upland forests but can also be found in abandoned fields and prairies. New Jersey Tea is very tolerant of drought conditions and can grow in a wide range of soil textures but prefers sandier and rockier textures. Well-established plants benefit from occasional fire because of their ability to sprout vigorous new shoots from their large, deep taproots.


Cultural Information:

New Jersey Tea is easiest to grow well-drained soils in full sun. It is adaptable to part shade but prefers at least 6 hours of sun. It grows best in well-drained sandy and rocky soils and is tolerant of both drought and road salt once established. New Jersey Tea will add some nitrogen to the soil. It is tolerant of heat, humidity, poor soil, and drought once established.

New Jersey Tea is great for erosion control and has low fertility needs. It is very drought-resistant but it’s leaves will become discolored and shrivel under severe conditions. It quickly revives when rain returns or is watered. New Jersey tea is fire-adapted. While the fire typically topkills the shrub, it is a prolific re-sprouter from the surviving rootstock. Jersey tea is very difficult to transplant once established.

Since New Jersey Tea is great for erosion control, it works best as a shrubby ground cover for hard-to-grow areas such as dry rocky slopes and banks. It also works well in lawn, meadow, naturalized areas, shrub borders, native plant gardens, butterfly gardens, drought-tolerant gardens, native gardens, nighttime gardens, pollinator gardens, and for foundation plantings.

Native Americans used New Jersey Tea for many purposes. The Cherokee made a root tea that was used to ease the pain from toothaches and for bowel troubles <5>. The roots of New Jersey tea were used by the Chippewa also used the root to treat pulmonary troubles, shortness of breath, and bloating <5>. Since the root is strongly astringent (with ~8% tannin), it was also used as an expectorant <7>. An alkaloid found in the root is mildly hypotensive, lowering blood pressure <6><7>. Root teas were was once used to treat dysentary, asthma, sore throat, bronchitis, whooping cough and spleen inflammation<7>. Thoroughly dried leaves can be used to prepare a caffeine-free tea <8>.

Wildlife uses:

New Jersey Tea is a pollinator super magnet and is pollinated by butterflies, bees, wasps, flies, beetles and many other small insects. Floral visitors include Halictid bees (Agapostemon spp., Halictus spp., Lasioglossum spp.), Andrenid bees (Andrena spp.), Plasterer Bees (Colletes spp.), Sphecid Wasps (Oxybelus spp., Cerceris spp., Tachysphex spp.), Vespid Wasps (Polistes spp., Stenodynerus spp.), Spider Wasps (Anoplius spp.), Syrphid Flies, Thick-headed Flies (Conopidae), Tachinid Flies, Flesh Flies (Sarcophagidae), Bottle Flies (Lucilia spp.), and Muscid Flies. Hairstreak butterflies (Satyrium spp.) also visit the flowers. New Jersey Tea is a host plant for the Broad-lined Erastria (Erastria coloraria), Sulfur Moth (Hesperymia sulphuraria), and Red-fronted Emerald (Nemoria rubrifrontaria), the caterpillars of the Spring/Summer Azure butterflies (Celastrina argiolus) and the Mottled Duskywing skipper (Erynnis martialis). Members of the genus Ceanothus support the following specialized bees: Pseudopanurgus pauper and Pseudopanurgus virginicus. Other insects feed destructively on the foliage, seeds, and other parts of New Jersey Tea. These species include stem-boring larvae of a long-horned beetle (Calliomoxys sanguinicollis), Leaf Beetles (Babia quadriguttata, Pachybrachis trinotatus), seed-eating Broad-headed Bugs (Alydus spp.), and the Angulate Tingid (Gargaphia angulata).

Seeds are commonly eaten by songbirds and some upland game birds, such as the Wild Turkey and Bobwhite Quail.

Foliage and stems are readily consumed by various mammalian herbivores, including elk, deer, rabbits, and livestock. This can make the establishment of this plant difficult where there is an overpopulation of such animals.

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