Tom's Blog

Friday, July 4, 2008

New Jersey tea

One of the showy prairie/savanna species is New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americana), which is in full flower now. This species is a member of the buckthorn family, and when not in flower careful attention must be paid. Once when I was spraying buckthorn resprouts with Garlon, I almost sprayed a small New Jersey tea plant by mistake.

Originally we knew about this plant at Pleasant Valley Conservancy only from a large number of plants growing along our prairie roadside on County Highway F. Also, I had found a few plants in a degraded ridge-top savanna remnant. County F was our main seed source, and the seeds we collected were added to our dry-mesic prairie mix. For some years we never saw any new plants, but finally about three years ago we started to see a few small plants. Now we are starting to get more, and our best new location is Unit 23, an open bur oak savanna where the photo above was taken.

New Jersey tea grows as a small shrub, which if not burned will overwinter. Burning top-kills the plant, but it readily resprouts from the base. According to the U.S. Forest Service Fire Information Database, with frequent fires it becomes a dominant component of prairies. It has the ability to fix nitrogen, which may aid it in becoming established in pioneer situations.

According to reports, the dried leaves make an excellent tea that was very popular as a substitute during the Revolutionary War.

When it is flowering, New Jersey tea is easy to spot, but once flowering is over, it gets lost in the prairie herbage. We usually mark flowering plants with a bit of red tape so that we can find them again when we collect seed. Seed collection is a little tricky, because once the seed pods are ripe, they open and the seeds are lost. The seed coats are very hard and require a brief heat treatment to germinate. The procedure recommended to us was to bring water to a boil and then add the seeds, stir, and quickly strain off the hot water. The seeds are then added to the seed mix for planting. Although this procedure is counterintuitive, it seems to work.

We have succeeded in growing plants in the greenhouse from seed, and they transplant well into the wild, providing they are watered well the first year.


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