Food Outdoors

Botanical Tea

Above: Photo by John Oyston

In Bloom: Red Root or New Jersey Tea

By Suzanne Wodek, Asheville Botanical Gardens

The name New Jersey Tea was coined during the American Revolution (1765–1783). With no tea coming from China via England, the colonists turned to other sources for tea. The dried leaves of the red root shrub were used as a tea substitute. Since red root was abundant in New Jersey, the name stuck.

By the time of the Civil War (1861–1865), the price of Chinese tea had climbed to $8–12 per pound, roughly equivalent to $200–300 per pound in today’s currency. Several publications touted the use of native plants as alternative sources for making tea—and this was one.

Interestingly, red root leaves contain no caffeine. But this small shrub, on average three feet tall with an equal spread, has a lot of other good qualities to offer. Native Americans used the red roots and their bark to treat infections of the upper respiratory tract.

Other common names of Ceanothus americanus include wild snowball, mountain sweet, and wild lilac. It is easily grown in average, dry-to-medium well-drained soils in full sun to part shade. In your landscape, it makes a great shrub border and an effective shrubby ground cover on dry rocky slopes and banks where it is hard to grow other plants. The thick, woody, red roots go deep and help the plant withstand drought conditions. Established shrubs are difficult to transplant, however.

The showy flowers are great for cut flower arrangements and attract hummingbirds and butterflies. The leaves have the fresh scent of wintergreen and are a larval host for spring azure, summer azure, and mottled dusky wing caterpillars.

This Month at the Botanical Gardens at Asheville

Join us for “The Peculiar World of Fungi” with Mike Hopping of the Asheville Mushroom Club Sunday, July 17, from 2–4 p.m. Participants must register and pre-pay: $12 for members; $17 for nonmembers.

The Botanical Gardens, located at 151 W.T. Weaver Boulevard, is a nonprofit organization housing a collection of plants native to the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated and memberships are encouraged. For more information visit

Leave a Comment