New jersey tea plant

2019 Wildflower of the Year: New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus)

Illustration by Betty Gatewood

New Jersey Tea is a low shrub, generally less than 1 m tall and often profusely branched. Stems are finely hairy, but may become smooth with age. Vegetative stems are perennial, but flowering stems persist for just a single year. Leaves are mostly 5 to 10 cm long; leaf shape varies from narrowly to widely ovate, acuminate to acute at the apex, and cordate to rounded at the base; leaf margins are finely serrate; both leaf surfaces may be finely hairy, especially on the veins; vein pattern is pinnate with a pair of prominent secondary veins arising near the base. Inflorescences arise from the axils of the uppermost leaves of flowering shoots; pubescent peduncles arising from lower nodes are longer than their subtending leaves, while those arising near the flowering shoot apex are approximately the same length as uppermost leaves.

Drawing by Nicky Staunton

The small fragrant flowers are densely clustered, forming umbel-like groups approximately 2 cm in diameter. Pedicels are glabrous. There are five sepals fused for about half their length with their free tips flexed inward, converging toward the style. The five petals have narrow bases and hood- or spoon-like apices that, in the bud, enclose the anthers; at anthesis, petal bases elongate, projecting the broad petal tips to the periphery of the flower. The five stamens are attached in radial alignment with the petals; filaments are oriented vertically, positioning the anthers directly above the central portion of the flower.

Ovaries are three-lobed, superior, and positioned atop thick glandular disks; the short styles are topped with three-branched stigmas. Fruits possess a finely rugose surface layer that is shed prior to ballistic dehiscence of the inner layers; in this fashion the three seeds produced by each fruit are propelled a short distance from the parent plant.

Drawing by Nicky Staunton

Human Uses

During the Revolutionary War, dried leaves of Ceanothus americanus were used as a substitute for tea; the leaves are, however, devoid of caffeine. Native Americans used preparations of root bark for medicinal purposes, a practice that continues today amongst herbalists. Alkaloids from the root have been demonstrated to exert a mild effect in lowering blood pressure. New Jersey Tea is a versatile dye plant, yielding green dye from flowers, red dye from roots, and cinnamon-colored dye from whole plants. Flowers are rich in saponins and will form a gentle lather when crushed and mixed with water.

Name and Relationships

Linnaeus coined the name Ceanothus americanus in his landmark 1753 work, Species Plantarum; in doing so he arbitrarily applied a genus name that was first used by Theophrastus, the “Father of Botany,” for a thistle or thistle-like plant (Ceanothus translates from Greek as “spiny plant”). The genus Ceanothus as presently understood consists of 58 species that range throughout most of North America and Central America; the center of diversity is California where species of Ceanothus are known collectively as California Lilacs. Ceanothus is classified in the plant family Rhamnaceae.

Photo by Betty Truax

Photo by Betty Truax

In the Wild

New Jersey Tea favors clearings and barrens in dry upland forests; it also occurs in abandoned fields and prairies. It thrives in gravelly soils. Well established plants are tolerant of fire by virtue of their ability to sprout vigorous new shoots from large, deep, roots. The fragrant nectar-bearing flowers attract butterflies, bees, and diverse small insects. Foliage serves as a larval host for several butterfly species, notably Spring Azures, Summer Azures, and Mottled Duskywings.

In the Garden

New Jersey Tea can be cultivated in sites with full sun to part shade and light soil texture. As such, it is a candidate for landscape plantings or naturalistic wildflower settings. As is often the case with deep-rooted plants, it can be challenging to transplant. The flowering season, ranging from May to June in Virginia, is relatively brief. Propagation by seed is best; cloth bags will help catch the seeds as fruits mature; brief scarifying with hot water (180 °F to 200 °F) followed by stratification at ca 40 °F for two or three months will improve seed germination.

Conservation Status

While the overall conservation status of New Jersey Tea is secure, it is considered a rare plant in some extreme portions of its range. Ceanothus americanus is generally rare in the northeast portion of its range, and especially so in the state of Maine.

Photo by Betty Truax

Where to See It

Ceanothus americanus is widespread in eastern North America, extending from New England, and southern Canada west to Wisconsin, south to central Texas and east to mid-peninsular Florida. It can be found throughout Virginia, but remains to be documented (or may be absent) in several counties of the Coastal Plain and Eastern Shore.

Ceonothus americanus distribution – Source: Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora, https://vaplantatlas.org

Photo by Richard Stromberg

Gardeners should not collect New Jersey Tea in the wild and should be certain that all native plants purchased for home gardens have been nursery-propagated, not wild-collected. For retail sources of nursery-propagated plants and responsibly collected seeds, visit https://vnps.org, email [email protected], or call 540-837-1600. To see and learn more about interesting species of plants native to Virginia, visit https://vnps.org and contact your local chapter of VNPS (details on the website) for times and dates of programs and wildflower walks in your area.

Virginia Native Plant Society
Blandy Experimental Farm
400 Blandy Farm Lane, Unit 2
Boyce, VA 22620

540-837-1600

Text by W. John Hayden, VNPS Botany Chair
Color illustrations by Betty Gatewood
Pen-and-ink illustrations by Nicky Staunton
Color photos by Betty Truax and Richard Stromberg

Ceanothus americanus

New Jersey Tea

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See Details Below

Description:

New Jersey Tea is a low-growing, wildlife-friendly deciduous shrub. Showy, fragrant, white flower clusters bloom May-July and are good fresh-cut. The flowers are a nectar source for hummingbirds, butterflies, and native bees. New Jersey Tea is a host plant for butterfly and moth larvae (caterpillars), including Spring Azure (Celastrina “ladon”), Mottled Duskywing (Erynnis martialis), and Summer Azure (Celastrina neglecta). Young, yellow twigs add color to the winter landscape. The common name originated when the dried leaves were used as a tea substitute during the Revolutionary War. Use New Jersey Tea in shrub borders, wildlife gardens, or as a groundcover on slopes.

Plant Details:

Other Common Names: Redroot

Plant Type: Shrub

New Jersey Native: Yes

Deer Resistance: High

Attracts Pollinators and Wildlife: Bees and Other Pollinators, Butterflies, Hummingbirds

Salt Tolerance: Low to None

Hardiness Zone: 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b

Physiographic Region: All Regions in NJ

Grows in Special Ecoregions: Barrier Island/Coastal, Pinelands

Soil Characteristics

Soil Type: Loam, Organic, Sandy

Soil Moisture: Well-drained

Soil pH: Acidic, Slightly Acidic

Light Needs of Plant

Optimal Light: Full Sun

Light Range: Full Sun, Partial Shade

Water Needs of Plant

Soil Moisture: Well-drained

Drought Tolerance: High

Size and Growth Rate

Height: 3 – 4 ft

Spread: 3 – 5 ft

Growth Rate: Slow

New Jersey Tea Plant (Ceanothus)

Growing Shrubs and Small Trees:
The shrubs and trees we sell are 1-2 year-old seedlings. These young plants appreciate some extra attention during their first 3 years in your landscape.

    Preferred growing conditions:

  • Check each species soil preferences before planting. Some do well in clay while others do not.
  • Mulch with common mulching materials. As they get larger (2 ft. or more in height), thicken the mulch layer to a depth of 2-3 inches.
  • Even xeric (waterwise) species will establish better and grow more quickly when given regular irrigation during the first 3 years in the garden. As they begin to reach maturity, watering frequency can be reduced to a good deep soaking every 10 to 14 days during the heat of summer.
  • Plant in full sun or part sun depending on plant preference.
  • Dig a wide but shallow hole and enrich the soil with ample amounts of compost and Yum Yum. This will help them to grow and mature more quickly.
  • Special comments:

  • Most native shrubs and trees are highly recommended for providing wildlife habitat (nesting spots, fruit or seeds for songbirds and mammals, nectar for pollinators).
  • They are excellent for use to grow as natural (un-sheared!) hedges along fences, property lines and driveways. They live for many years once established.
  • Garden Care:

  • Fertilize in the fall with Yum Yum Mix and good quality compost. This is most important during the first 3 years in the landscape. Established plants don’t need to be fertilized (unless growth is stunted by extremely poor soils).
  • Where browsing animals (rabbits, deer and others) are a problem, it is advisable to protect young plants with a wire cage. These can be removed after 3-4 years in the ground.
  • Mulching is essential to maintain the soil moisture these woody plants need to establish their deep growing roots. Be sure and replenish the mulch in fall and summer to keep it sufficiently deep.
  • View more Planting Guides, or download our complete Planting Guide for tips on caring for your plants when you receive your order, as well as planting instructions for Perennials, Spring-Planted Bulbs, Fall-Planted Bulbs, Cacti & Succulents, Xeric Plants and more.

New Jersey Tea Seeds

Sowing: This seed requires scarification and stratification to break its dormancy. Pour boiling water over the seeds and let them soak overnight; next, mix the seeds with moist sand and store them in the refrigerator for 70 days before planting. Direct sow the treated seed in the spring after the last frost, planting just below the surface of the soil. When planted in the fall, only the boiling water treatment will be needed before direct sowing the seed. Germination may be slow and irregular.

Growing: This plant prefers dry soil, and grows well in rocky or shallow soil. Though seedlings should be watered occasionally until they become established, mature plants handle drought well and do not tolerate excess moisture. This plant develops rather slowly, since producing its extensive, deep roots take much of its energy in the first few seasons; transplanting is not recommended because of these deep roots. Over time, it will spread and form a colony. This plant attracts butterflies, bees, and many other insects, as well as being a food source for deer and birds. This plant makes a lovely fragrant border as well as being a good addition to native prairie plantings; in winter, the yellow twigs remain attractive.

Harvesting: New Jersey Tea makes a very attractive, fragrant cut flower. Cut the stems long and place them in water immediately, stripping off the leaves that fall below the water level. For tea, gather the leaves when the plant is in full bloom; spread them out to dry fully, out of direct sunlight.

Seed Saving: This plant spreads its seeds by exploding them out of their pods, making harvesting a challenge. Keep a close watch on the heads, since they will explode soon after they turn a dark color. When the seed heads turn nearly black, remove them and spread them out to dry. A light cover of some kind may be necessary, since the seed heads may still explode and release their seeds as they dry. Separate the seeds from their pods and store the cleaned seed in a cool, dry place.

New Jersey Tea Information: Growing New Jersey Tea Shrubs

What is a New Jersey tea plant? Even committed tea drinkers may not have heard of this shrub. It’s a compact bush with leaves used to make tea several hundred years ago. Do you want more New Jersey tea information? Read on for tips on how to grow a New Jersey tea shrub.

What is a New Jersey Tea Plant?

The New Jersey tea plant (Ceanothus americanus) is native to the continent, though not just to New Jersey. It grows in the wild in prairies, glades and thickets in the eastern and central parts of the United States.

A dense and compact bush, the New Jersey tea plant will usually stay shorter than you are, typically growing to 2 to 3 feet (.6-.9 m.) tall and equally wide. Tiny, creamy white flowers appear on stalks in spring, hanging in fragrant clusters. As with other Ceanothus shrubs, they attract hummingbirds, butterflies and birds.

The leaves are dark green above, hairy gray below, with toothed edges. According to New Jersey tea information, new twigs grow in yellow and are attractive in winter. The plants are browsed by white-tailed deer.

What is a New Jersey tea plant’s relationship to tea? During the American Revolution, people growing New Jersey tea plants used the dried leaves as a caffeine-free tea substitute.

How to Grow a New Jersey Tea Shrub

Growing New Jersey tea is easy because the plants are very adaptable. They also fix atmospheric nitrogen. The flowering plants make lovely shrub borders even if you aren’t partial to the tea they produce. They serve well as ground cover for difficult areas of your backyard since they don’t require much care. In fact, New Jersey tea shrub care is minimal.

That’s because New Jersey tea shrubs are low maintenance plants that tolerate drought and thrive in dry soil, shallow soil and rocky soil. You can easily grow them in well-drained soils in either full sun or part shade.

If you are wondering how to grow a New Jersey tea shrub, all you have to do is site the plant appropriately. Ideally, start growing New Jersey tea in sandy loams or rocky soils with good drainage. Although initial irrigation is necessary, once the plant is established, you won’t have to do much shrub care maintenance.

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