Ceanothus americanus L.

New Jersey Tea

Ceanothus americanus plant

Family - Rhamnaceae

Habit - Shrubs, to 1 m.

Stems - Erect with ascending branches, woody, multiple from base, densely pubescent with a mix of longer and shorter hairs above, minutely hairy to glabrous below.

Ceanothus americanus stemUpper portion of stem.

Leaves - Alternate, petiolate. Petiole to 6 mm long, densely pubescent. Blades 1-8 cm long, 0.5-5.0 cm wide, ovate to oblong-ovate, rounded or shallowly cordate at base, bluntly or sharply pointed, sharply and finely toothed, the upper surface rugose and sparsely to moderately pubescent with short, somewhat cobwebby hairs, rarely glabrous, the undersurface moderately to densely short-hairy, rarely glabrous.

Ceanothus americanus leaves2Stem and leaves.

Ceanothus americanus leavesLeaves.

Inflorescence - Terminal panicles on short branchlets that are axillary on the main branchlets of the current-year's growth, relatively long-stalked. Inflorescence stalks to 6 cm long, densely pubescent, longer than subtending leaf. Panicle to 4 cm, hemispheric to cylindric. Pedicels white, glabrous, expanded at apex below calyx, to 6 mm.

Ceanothus americanus inflorescence2Inflorescence.

Flowers - Perfect. Sepals 5, 0.5-1.0 mm long, oblong, acute, ciliate margined, 1 mm long, deciduous. Petals 5, 1.5-2.5 mm long, white, spreading, clawed, the claw to 1 mm long. Limb cupped or folded, tuberculate externally, 0.8 mm long. Stamens 5, opposite the petals, erect. Filaments to 1 mm long, whitish with a purple tinge, glabrous. Anthers purplish. Style 0.2 mm long, 3-lobed. Ovary surrounded by a purple nectary ring, 3-locular. Hypanthium 1 mm long, white, persistent in fruit.

Ceanothus americanus flowerIndividual flower.

Fruits - Capsulelike, modified drupes, with 3 lobes and 3 stones, 4-5 mm broad, the outer surface thin, leathery, black, not glaucous, the stones dehiscing explosively at maturity, tearing open the outer fruit layers and expelling the seeds. Seeds 1.5-2.0 mm long, more or less obovate in outline, somewhat anglar, the surface smooth, reddish brown to brown, shiny.

Ceanothus americanus fruitsFruits [C. herbaceus]

Flowering - May - November.

Habitat - Prairies, glades, open woods, thickets, railroads.

Origin - Native to U.S.

Lookalikes - Ceanothus herbaceus.

Other info. - This species is common across Missouri, the eastern half of the U.S., and parts of Canada. It is reasonably easy to identify, with puffy white inflorescences and textured, alternate leaves. The fruits are unmistakable. Various authors have subdivided the species into three varieties, two of which occur in Missouri. Variety pitcheri T.&G. is the more common, appearing as described above. A rare variety, var. intermedius (Pursh) K. Koch, has smaller leaves which are glabrous above and only slightly pubescent below. This latter variety is only found in a couple of counties in the eastern portion of the state. However, Yatskievych and others have suggested that varietal recognition be deferred pending more research on the genus.

Another species, C. herbaceus, resembles C. americanus, but has peduncles which typically do not exceed the subtending leaf, leaves which are oblong-lanceolate to narrowly elliptic, and flower clusters which are more globose in shape. Note that the fruit picture above is actually of C. ovatus, but the fruits of the two species are virtually identical.

C. americanus has a long history of use by humans. It was used as tea substitute during both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Native Americans prepared root tea for treatment of respiratory tract infections. Other reported uses include treatment of venereal disease, dysentery, and spleen disorders, and as a styptic / coagulant. The plant contains numerous and structurally varied secondary metabolites, including steroidal acids, flavonoids, and unusual macrocyclic peptides termed "peptide alkaloids" due to their alkaline nature. Some of these compounds have shown weak antimicrobial properties, and bark extracts have been found to have hypotensive activity. Some species of Ceanothus fix nitrogen via root nodules, in a manner similar to legumes.

Photographs taken at the James C. McCormack Conservation Area, Holt County, MO., 6-30-00, and off Hwy 106, Shannon County, MO., 6-6-03 (DETenaglia); also at Onondaga Cave State Park, Crawford County, MO, 6-12-2014 (SRTurner).