Lapland rosebay is a mat-forming evergreen shrub with scaly bark and pink to purple bell-shaped flowers. By almost all sources I have found, it is typically 5-30 cm (2-12 inches) tall, rarely taller. Flora of North America eFloras.org states that it may grow 0.5-0.7 m (1.5-2.3 feet), which is more consistent with some of the specimens that I found in the Savage River area of Denali National Park. It is probable that it is very stunted in alpine conditions, leading to the statement that it is much shorter. It is one of the smallest rhododendron species.
Rhododendron lapponicum grows from a rhizomatous rootstock. The stems are prostrate to erect, multi-branched, with smooth or slightly furrowed bark. The evergreen leaves are green or brownish-green, petiole, leathery, and elliptic to ovate in shape. Petioles are scaly.
The inflorescence is a raceme of 3-6 flowers attached by pedicels at the stem terminal, although I have seen many that were singular-flowered. Blooming very early in the spring season, the flowers are approximately 2.5 cm (1 inch) in diameter. The flower has 5 connate petals, rose to purple in color. The corolla tube gradually expands into lobes. The flower has 5-10 stamens that are about 7-13 mm in length, similar in color to the petals, with large oval anthers.
For information only (typically historical) – I take no responsibility for adverse effects from the use of any plant.
I found no records of uses of Lapland rosebay from primary sources. Plants For a Future lists that tea can be made from the leaves and many other “naturalist” websites cite this without warning. However, the leaves of many plants in the genus Rhododendron are poisonous (most parts of rhododendrons are poisonous), containing diterpene grayanotoxins.
Ingestion of grayanotoxins can cause dizziness, hypotension, atrial-ventricular block, and can be life-threatening. Even honey made from the pollinated plants can be poisonous and is known as mad honey. This is thought to be the cause of the poisoning of Greek soldiers in 401 BC, who ate the honey of bees pollinating the nearby Azalea pontica. After eating the honey the soldiers suffered from diarrhea and vomiting and seemed excessively drunk. Some seemed crazy and some seemed near death. Here’s some reading on grayanotoxins, as well as an interesting read on mad honey from Seconds Food History.
Based on this I would not trust tea made from the leaves or any other part of this plant. That said, I also found no record that the species Rhododendron lapponicum contains diterpene grayanotoxins.
Distribution and Habitat
Lapland rosebay (Rhododendron lapponicum) has a circumboreal distribution across North America and Eurasia. In North America, it is largely found in Alaska and Canada, and a few of the northern states in the US. In eastern Canada, it is mostly found along the Hudson Bay. The pockets where it is found further south are likely locations where the plant was stranded after the last ice age. In New England, it is only found on the higher peaks such as New Hampshire and in the Adirondacks. In Wisconsin, it is found in the Wisconsin Dells. The plant is considered imperiled or critically imperiled in all of these southern locations.
Lapland rosebay thrives in conditions where the soil is frozen for 4-6 months of the year. It lives in arctic and sub-alpine and alpine tundra, sandy or rocky stream banks, and in heaths or thickets.
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