Red Root

Ceanothus americanus

Herbs gallery - Red Root

Common names

  • Jersey Tea
  • New Jersey Tea
  • Red Root

Commonly also known as New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) is a shrub that is native to North America. It usually grows up to a height of 18 inches to 42 inches and has several slender branches. The root system of the red root plant is substantial and has fiber-like root hairs that are quite near to the surface. The roots are plump and woody having small lumps. Often the root of this plant goes deep down into the soil, while the root system may become substantially large when growing in the wild. In fact, this compensates for the losses endured by the plant following exposures to recurring wildfires. The red root produces white flowers that appear in clustered inflorescences on elongated, supplementary peduncles. The fruits produced by this plant are dry that burst open naturally (dehiscent) to release its seed capsules.

This shrub has a greyish appearance owing to its young leaves. The flowers are small and white colored and appear in oval clusters at the apex of the branches. The base of this small plant is woody, but in the upper part it has spreading, herbaceous branches. The color of the plant during the fall becomes inconsequential.

The dried up leaves of this plant may be used to prepare a wonderful tea that was widely used during the American Revolutionary War or the American War of Independence (1775-1783), especially in the form of an alternative for tea imported from Europe.

Red root or the New Jersey tea is a plant of the prairies having unusually deep roots and, hence, it has the aptitude to endure even after ravages done by recurrent wildfires. Deer feed on the twigs of this plant all through the year. Similarly, caterpillars of Celastrina ladon (the ordinary Spring azure butterfly) survive on the red root leaves, while the adult butterflies consume nectar.

Parts used

Roots, bark, leaves.


The Native Indians in North America have been extensively using the root as well as the root bark of red root for treating fevers as well as problems related to the mucous membrane, including sore throats and catarrh. Even today the roots of this shrub are used therapeutically for their astringent, antispasmodic and expectorant actions. These days the New Jersey tea roots are used for treating health conditions like coughs, bronchitis and asthma. In fact, the roots and the bark of the roots possess antisyphilitic, expectorant, antispasmodic, sedative and haemostatic properties, besides being potently astringent containing about 8 per cent tannins. The roots and root bark also work to stimulate the lymphatic system. In addition, they contain an alkaloid that has a gentle hypotensive attribute or helps to lower high blood pressure (hypertension).

Therapeutically, red root is also used internally to treat bronchial problems like whooping cough and asthma, tonsillitis, sore throat, hemorrhoids, dysentery and several other health conditions. A decoction prepared from the root bark of this plant is often employed to rinse the skin for treating sores formed due to cancer as well as venereal sores. The bark is also dried up and pulverized into a powder that is used for dusting sores.

The roots of this herb are dug up and partly harvested during spring or autumn, when their color changes to deepest red. Soon after harvesting, they are cleaned and dried up for use when needed.

The flowers of the red root plant yield a green dye, while the whole plant yields a dye having the color of cinnamon. Even the roots of the plant yield a red pigment. As the flowers enclose high levels of saponins, they form an excellent lather when mashed and put in water. This later can be effectively used in the form of a mild soap. The lather produced by the red root flowers may also be used in the form of a body wash - just rub the damp flowers all over the body and they will produce lather that will clean your body. Alternatively, the lather formed by the wet flowers may also be employed to wash clothes. Once, the Native Indians of North America extensively used the flower lather to wash their body, particularly women used it before preparing them for marriage ceremonies. In addition to cleansing the body, the lather also leaves the aroma of the flowers on the skin.

Culinary uses

The red root plant is also used for culinary purpose. The leaves of the shrub are used to prepare a revitalizing and invigorating tea, which can be drunk as an alternative to the tea imported from China. However, this herbal tea does not contain any caffeine. Generally, the red root leaves are collected during the flowering season of the plant and they are dried up in shade for later use.

Habitat and cultivation

The red root plant can be often found growing in the prairies, dry plains or meadows where there are no trees. It has a preference for rock-strewn or sandy soils. It is a common plant in the forest clearings or peripheries, on gentle slopes as well as on the banks of water bodies like lakes and rivers.

Although the red rood plant likes a warm sun-lit position better, it can even tolerate semi-shaded positions. While it possesses the aptitude to endure soils that are slightly lime, it thrives even in poor, arid conditions. However, plants of this species loathe any kind of disturbance to their roots and, hence, it is advisable that you directly plant them outdoors in their permanent locations when they are still young. This plant also detests heavy pruning and so it is advisable that you should not cut any wood from the plant that is broader compared to a pencil. If you still need to prune the plant, it should be preferably undertaken during the spring.

Ceanothus americanus grows very rapidly and starts flowering while the plants are still young. Generally, the red root plants start producing flowers in the second year of their existence. Moreover, red root plants also hybridize very easily with other plants belonging to the same genus. A number of plants belonging to this genus also share a symbiotic (mutually benefitting) association with specific microorganisms present in the soil and they develop into lumps on the plant roots and help to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. While the growing plant utilizes some amount of this nitrogen, other plants in the vicinity may also make use of the nutrient.

The red root plant is generally propagated by its seeds. Ideally, the red root seeds should be sown in a cold frame immediately after they mature. If you are using stored seeds, ensure that you soak them in warm water for about 12 hours and place them in cold stratification at 1°C for anything between one to three months. Normally, it takes about one to two months for the seeds to germinate, provided they are kept at 20°C. According to one report, it is best to give the seeds a boiling water treatment or heat them in four times their quantity of sand at temperatures ranging from 90°C to 120°C for roughly four to five minutes and subsequently immerse them in warm water for another 12 hours prior to sowing them.

It has been found that the seeds of red root remain viable for a prolonged period, often as long as 15 years, especially when they are stored in sealed dry containers kept at temperatures ranging from 1°C to 5°C. When stored in such conditions, the seeds do not show any sign of deterioration for long. When the seeds are completely ripened, they are thrown out of their capsules with some power. However, the timing for collecting the seeds may not be easy. Unless you collect the seeds immediately before dehiscence (forcing the seeds out of their capsules) it becomes difficult to collect them and they seldom germinate adequately. Immediately after the seedlings have grown sufficiently large to be handled, you should prick them out individually and plant them in separate pots. It is advisable that you continue growing the seedlings in a greenhouse for no less than the initial six months of their existence. You may plant them outdoors in their permanent locales during the later part of spring or the starting of summer.

If you choose to propagate the red root with its cuttings, you should use semi-mature wood cut from the nodes preferably during July and August and plant them in a frame. If you are using cuttings from mature wood from the plant's current growth, ideally they should be between 7 cm and 12 cm in length along with heel and undertaken in October. These cuttings should also be planted in a frame. The roots of this plant are somewhat breakable and, therefore, it is best if you plant the root cuttings with nodules before any damage is caused to the roots.


The Native Indians of North America often used the New Jersey tea plant's reddish roots as well as the bark of these roots to cure upper respiratory tract infections. The aroma of the fresh leaves is akin to that of fresh wintergreen and the colonists used them as an alternative for imported tea as well as an invigorating beverage that does not contain caffeine. Contemporary herbal medicine practitioners prescribe all parts of this shrub for treating various ailments, especially those related to the respiratory tract. In addition, the extracts from the flowers and roots of this plant yield different color dyes. In its raw state, the root is astringent containing tannins as well as some peptide alkaloids, such as pandamine, ceanothine A-E and many more. These alkaloids have a gentle hypotensive action.


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