Medicinal plants have been the primary method of healthcare throughout history and continue to be relied upon by many people globally (Uprety et al., 2012). Some studies point out that between 40 and 80% of people have used some form of Traditional Medicine or Complementary and Alternative Medicine to treat health ailments both in the developed and developing worlds (WHO, 2002). Traditional Medicine is defined by the World Health Organization as practices that use plant, animal or mineral components and legacy therapies that are passed down from knowledge holders to new practitioners and exclude the use of pharmaceuticals or surgical procedures typically associated with science-based allopathic medicine (e.g. medicine of standardized practices brought in locally from a dominant yet external health system). Canada as many other countries in the world, has a rich Indigenous heritage that includes using many native plants to treat ill health. Contemporary Indigenous Knowledge of herbal medicine is the culmination of observations and oral history passed down over millennia, which in many cases has been ignored in Western medicine (Hill, 2009). Herbal medicine in Arctic Indigenous communities is particularly threatened, due to Traditional Knowledge holders dying out without passing knowledge down to younger generations along with the rapid implementation of western-dominated knowledge plus the threats of global warming affecting Arctic vegetation (Piper & Sandlos, 2007; Lougheed, 2010; Bjorkman et al., 2019).

There is no universal system of Indigenous medicine. Indigenous Knowledge is derived from oral history and as such the systems of medicine held by Indigenous peoples are very dynamic yet localized, changing to reflect their unique origin and transmission. As such, plants that appear across many Indigenous Knowledge Systems are of interest to researchers and communities looking to preserve Indigenous heritage and record herbal medicine uses (Uprety et al., 2012). An example of a plant that is very valuable across Indigenous groups in North America is Labrador Tea. Two species of Labrador Tea (R. groelandicum and R. tomentosum) are consistently found among the most widely used herbal medicines treating sore throats and coughs, as well as complications in pregnancy and conception (Davis & Banack, 2012; Uprety et al., 2012; Whitecloud & Grenoble, 2014; Dawson, 2017).

Figure 1: Labrador Tea (R. groenlandicum) blooms. Photo by Peter Wurst, creative commons.

Medicinal properties and potential uses

Labrador Tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum) is a slow growing evergreen shrub from the Ericacaea or Heath family. It has narrow, dark-green leaves and small white flowers (Eid et al., 2016; Black et al., 2011). Labrador Tea is found throughout North America from as far north in Canada as Labrador and the islands of Nunavut as well as in Alaska and Greenland. R. groenlandicum grows in a variety of Sub-arctic environments including tundra regions, bogs and the boreal forest. Rhododendron tomentosum, or Northern Labrador Tea grows in Arctic regions and is often used interchangeably with R. groenlandicum. The two species have a slightly different composition of volatile oils but are often used for similar therapeutic benefits such as relieving respiratory or digestive conditions and pain relief of sore muscles and joints caused by inflammation (Black et al., 2011; Dampc & Luckiewicz, 2013 McGill et al. 2017; Ziegler et al., 2018; Rose, 2011). Both species also contain toxic alkaloids, so their consumption is traditionally done under supervision.

Figure 2: R. tomentosum is a smaller species with shorter leaves than R. groenlandicum. Photo by Sten, wikimedia

Labrador Tea is traditionally consumed as an infusion prepared by steeping leaves in hot water and is an energizing herb to be drunk during periods of illness (Ziegler et al., 2018). The leaves of both R. groenlandicum and R. tomentosumcan be added to a warm bath to soothe sore muscles and joints. Many of the traditional medicinal claims of Labrador Tea have not been proven scientifically, however certain compounds found in Labrador Tea have been researched. Some studies have found that Labrador Tea contains chemical compounds with anti-oxidant, anti-cancer and anti-diabetic effects (Rose, 2011; Dufour et al., 2007; Ouchfoun et al., 2016; Eid et al., 2016). Most notably, according to contemporary scientific research, R. groenlandicum appears to be an effective treatment for symptoms associated with Type-2 diabetes (Ouchfoun et al.,, 2016; Eid et al., 2016) so it may be rewarding to further investigate such benefits of this tea.

Figure 3: Labrador Tea (R. groenlandicum) leaves.
Image by Heather Anderson

Labrador Tea in Indigenous Knowledge Systems and beyond

An interesting documented example of Indigenous herbal medicine as encountered by Europeans, comes from two-hundred years ago in the narratives about Barbue, a Gwich’in trading chief. In the early 19th century, Fort Good Hope was established as the Hudson’s Bay Company’s northernmost trading post in the Northwest Territories (Krech, 1982). The establishment of this trading post, which is located just below the Arctic Circle, marks the beginning of regular trade between Europeans and northern Indigenous peoples. The lives of northern Indigenous peoples were beginning to change through their contact with Western traders and explorers, but their healing traditions still remained intact (Krech, 1982). In Fort Good Hope between 1828 and 1829 the final days of Barbue were recorded by clerks working for the Hudson’s Bay Company. This account is significant because it provides insight into the Gwich’in system of healing and theory of illness. The cause of Barbue’s illness according to the Gwich’in was ‘bad medicine’, a form of sorcery placed on Barbue by his rivals. To help alleviate Barbue’s symptoms, which included difficulty in breathing, violent heart palpitations, and spasms during sleep, shamans employed a variety of herbal medicines such as hartle berries, yarrow, and Labrador Tea.

The use of Labrador Tea to treat illnesses and supplement the diet is still practiced among Arctic and Sub-arctic Indigenous communities, even though their traditional systems of medicine have undergone many changes (Fletcher & Kirmayer, 1997; Black et al., 2008; Davis & Banack, 2012; Whitecloud & Grenoble, 2014). In many Indigenous Knowledge Systems that are shamanistic such as the Inuit, illnesses are believed to be caused by the loss of one’s soul, the breaking of taboos, or through the action of hostile spirits (Fletcher & Kirmayer, 1997). Shamans (or angakkuq in Inuit) would travel to the spiritual plane to commune with or confront spirits that cause illness (Fletcher & Kirmayer, 1997; Johnston, 2002). Today, in the face of rapidly changing lifestyles and systems of medicine, healthcare providers servicing Inuit communities have suggested implementing the cultural system of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit to address their unique mental, spiritual, and physical health problems. Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit seeks to combine Inuit traditional ways of life and healing practices with modern Western medicine to improve the healthcare, nutrition, and community well-being (Black et al., 2008). Preserving Traditional Knowledge on herbal medicine and incorporating traditional practices can help reconnect people with their heritage and increase food security and nutrition specially in isolated northern communities (Lougheed, 2010). The integration of Indigenous Knowledge Systems with the contemporary Canadian healthcare system is a promising idea that could benefit both Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, through appropriate consultation with Indigenous groups.

Effect of the environment on medicinal properties

A plant is considered medicinal if it contains compounds beneficial to human health. However, these chemicals are often produced by the plants in response to threats they are exposed to such as insect attacks, droughts or cold temperatures (Das et al., 2016). The environment in which a medicinal plant is grown alters the exact phytochemical composition of the plant. The cold and harsh conditions in the Arctic are vital to the development of the important medicinal properties of Labrador Tea and increasing temperatures in the North caused by climate change are having a detrimental effect on many native plants in that region (Maikhuri et al.,2018; Rapinski et al., 2014).). In turn, these changes may have a substantial impact on the Indigenous peoples that rely on these plants. To alleviate these pressures, the propagation and cultivation of Labrador Tea in a controlled environment may be beneficial in the future to help produce optimal levels of medicinal compounds without threatening the survival of wild populations. The potential of Labrador Tea in treating disease in addition to the unique ubiquity that this plant holds in many Indigenous Knowledge Systems merit its preservation and continued research. For this reason, the conservation of Labrador Tea to ensure that the medicinal compounds are sustained in a warming climate is essential; both to allow for future research, as well as to ensure that Indigenous peoples have continued access to an important traditional medicine.

About the Authors

Heather Anderson is a fourth-year student at the University of Guelph studying Crop, Horticulture and Turfgrass sciences. Her interests include preserving the natural environment and ensuring a sustainable future

Kelson Miron is studying Wildlife Biology and Conservation as an undergraduate at the University of Guelph. He is interested in both the preservation of traditional knowledge concerning the use of plants in traditional medicine, and in the conservation of the plants themselves.

Keltie Morris is a fourth-year student at the University of Guelph completing a Bachelor of Science in Honours Agriculture. Her interests include sustainable farming practices and the integration of medicinal plants in Western medicine.


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