Herbs: Redroot or California Lilac; History, Nutrition and Medicinal Uses
The term California lilac or redroot are generic terms for a fascinating plant species known as Ceanothus, which is in the buckthorn (Rhamnacea) botanical family. Nowadays plants in this genus of shrubs, both evergreen and deciduous, are best known to gardening enthusiasts and the animals that feed on them in the wild, although to Native Americans and early colonialists these plants had several useful purposes.
The Ceanothus plant species numbers about 50-60 genera, all of which are indigenous to North and Central America and can be found as far south as Guatemala. Approximately 55 species are found in the Southwestern United States, in arid mountainous and dessert locations. Some of the western species became popular ornamental garden shrubs, in mild locations, for hedgerows. Ceanothus species bears delicate, fragrant flowers that vary in color from lilac, pink, purple, blue, white and many shades in-between, due to natural hybridization. The flowers attract numerous species of butterflies, humming birds and bees.
One of the best known is (C. thyrsiflorus) wild lilac or blue blossom a California native with stunning blue flowers that bloom in late spring through early summer. In 1837 members of the Royal Horticultural Society were so impressed that they brought seeds of C. thysiflorus back to London, which was the first successful European propagation of the plant species, although Ceanothus americanus or New Jersy tea first reached the old world in 1713.
Of all the Ceanothus species brought from North America the western varieties had the greatest impact in European horticulture and led to some hybridization of the species, particularly in French and Belgium garden nurseries. The more durable species, such as C. americanus (which has white flowers and is from the Eastern United States) were hybridized with the less hardy Central American and western species. The practice continued through the 19th and 20th centuries, with some new cultivars appearing, but is uncommon today.
After the Boston Tea Party (1773), the Greenwich Tea Party (1774), and during the revolutionary war, east coast colonialists used the dried leaves and roots of C. americanus or redroot, as a tea substitute. Like other tea substitutes of the day, such as bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), redroot or New Jersey tea, as it became popularly known, contains only trace amounts of caffeine, in fact very little, so it is considered a caffeine free tea substitute. Nevertheless, New Jersey tea leaves have a taste similar to tea leaves from the orient and are highly nutritious with medicinal properties.
Medicinal Value: The Cherokee people were known to have used the leaves of C.americanus externally to treat venereal sores and skin cancer. Other species including tobacco brush (C. velutinus) and deerbush (C. integerrimus) were synonymous amongst native people for their blood staunching and astringent properties. The plants leaves are thought especially effective for inflammation of the chest, throat, nose and mouth, (e.g. bronchitis, tonsillitis, sinusitis). This herb is therapeutic for the lymphatic system and was also used to treat depression.
For the treatment of enlarged lymph nodes, sore throat and inflammation of the tonsils the herbalist Micheal Moore, In Medicinal Plants of the Dessert and Canyon West, recommends to boil two tablespoons of California lilac root for twenty minutes in a quart of water and refrigerate. Drink one third of a quart before meals for a few days.
Other Uses For Redroot: Some Native American tribes in the west used the roots of California lilac to make soap and also shampoo. Ceanothus species are a source of saponins, (the principle plant source being soapberry) a class of chemical compounds which produce a soap-like foam when combined with water. In plants saponins act as fungicides destroying microbes; therefore they are natural detergents.
Chemical constituents of Ceanothus spp. Micheal Moore stated that the root and bark contain the triterpenoid, betulinic acid. Betulinic acid has anti-viral, anti-inflammatory properties and may inhibit the grow of human melanona. Other notable componds are the triterpenes ceaothic acid and ceanothenic acid; some species have methyl-salicylate (a topical analgesic used in Bengay cream) and also caffeine. He also lists the presence of several alkaloids, including integerrine and ceanothamine. The leaves are a source of the antioxidant rich flavonoids, velutin, maesopsin and maesopsin-6-0-glucoside.
Varieties of Ceanothus spp are also know as palo Colorado, Chaquerilla, Mountain lilac, Snowbrush, buckbrush, deer brush, sweet birch, Oregon tea tree, mahala may, lilac bush and tobacco brush.
Primary image California or wild lilac (Ceanothus thyrsiflorus); image credit.
New Jersey tea ( Ceanothus americanus) Image credit.