New Jersey Tea
Sun/shade: Full sun to part shade
Soil moisture: Dry to medium
Flowering period: June
Host plant for 37 caterpillar species
In late spring, New Jersey tea produces a luxuriant growth of fluffy white flower clusters near the tips of its branches. A source of both pollen and nectar, the flowers attract numerous organisms, and with their white coloration and pleasant fragrance, they are especially enticing to nocturnal visitors such as moths. These underappreciated creatures constitute the pollinator “night-shift,” and observing one’s garden after dark reveals their silent forms as they flutter about the flowers in the moonlight. During the daytime, New Jersey tea is a favorite of hairstreak butterflies, including the banded hairstreak. With its grey wings marked with orange and blue eyespots, the banded hairstreak is a lovely species. For much of the day, this butterfly flies about the canopies of oaks and hickories, which are its caterpillar host plants. It descends regularly to obtain nectar, however, and at these times it is a common visitor of nearby gardens. Planting New Jersey tea helps provide floral resources to the banded hairstreak, especially if one’s garden happens to be near an oak-hickory woods.
A native constituent of NE Ohio open woodlands, meadows, and forest edges, New Jersey Tea grows best under full sun to partial shade and in soils of average to moderately dry moisture. Due to its deep taproot, the plant has very good drought tolerance and is therefore a great choice for dry places, including slopes and areas of sandy or gravelly soil. As the plant establishes during its first growing season, though, it is important to give it a thorough watering once per week. A nice benefit of growing New Jersey tea is that the shrub adds nitrogen to the soil, increasing soil fertility. In this regard New Jersey tea is unusual – it is one of the few plants outside of the pea family that raises soil nitrogen levels.
At only 2-3’ tall, New Jersey tea works well as a border plant along walkways, in the front portions of gardens, or even as a tall groundcover if planted densely. Due to its small size, it is a perfect replacement for the oft planted boxwood, a nonnative shrub of little to no wildlife value. A nonaggressive plant, New Jersey tea does not spread by rhizome and its seeds do not germinate readily. Gardeners should take note that this shrub is palatable to deer and rabbits, and it may therefore need to be protected from browsing until it is established. When planted alongside Ohio spiderwort and butterfly milkweed, New Jersey tea offers a perfect white floral counterpoint to their vibrant shades.
Photo by Andrey Zharkikh.