Happy Independence Day! What better way to celebrate than with herbarium specimens of New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), named for the fact that it was used as a substitute for tea by colonists and American soldiers during the American Revolutionary War. There was presumably a shortage of black tea, which was imported. Although the leaves contain no caffeine, it fit the bill. The plant also has a much longer history before European settlement. Tribes of the Missouri River used the leaves for tea as well, and tribes of the Great Lakes used the plant to treat digestive ailments.
New Jersey tea, also called Indian tea, can be found not only in New Jersey, but across the eastern United States. It is in the buckthorn family (Rhamnaceae), which is unsurprisingly also family to introduced shrub/tree, common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica).
These specimens were both collected in Pennsylvania on the 4th of July. One in Luzerne county by Alfred Twining 1907, who wrote a flora of Northeastern PA ten years later. Many of his specimens are at the Everhart Museum of Natural History, Science, and Art in Scranton, PA.
The other Independence Day New Jersey Tea specimen was collected by Robert Leberman in Crawford county in 1986. Leberman established the bird banding program at the Carnegie Musuem of Natural History’s Powdermill Nature Reserve in 1961. It continues today as the longest running, year-round banding research operation in the country.
New Jersey Tea is a beautiful shrub, important for many pollinators, and food source for other wildlife. The plant is also sold commercially by many native plant nurseries to plant in your yard or garden.
All plants have a cultural history and a scientific one. As you remember the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution, think too about New Jersey Tea’s impact on our country. Did John Hancock drink it before signing? (Totally made that up).
Find high resolution images of these specimens (and 290 more!) online: http://midatlanticherbaria.org/portal/collections/list.php?db=328&taxa=Ceanothus+americanus&usethes=1&taxontype=2
Check back for more! Botanists at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History share digital specimens from the herbarium on dates they were collected. They have embarked on a three-year project to digitize nearly 190,000 plant specimens collected in the region, making images and other data publicly available online. This effort is part of the Mid-Atlantic Megalopolis Project (mamdigitization.org), a network of thirteen herbaria spanning the densely populated urban corridor from Washington, D.C. to New York City to achieve a greater understanding of our urban areas, including the unique industrial and environmental history of the greater Pittsburgh region. This project is made possible by the National Science Foundation under grant no. 1801022.
Mason Heberling is Assistant Curator of Botany at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.