Are herbal teas really tea?

Chamomile and other flowers. Photo:

Herbs: how homey, comforting, fragrant and useful they are! Herbs are the edible stems, leaves and flowers of certain plants, and sometimes, as in the case with onions and fennel, the edible roots are used similarly. Kitchen herbs, as well as edible flowers like roses, marigolds, and lavender, are not just delicious; many of them possess qualities that have made them popular as medicinal ingredients through the years. They are still important to what is called “folk medicine” or “home remedies” in some communities today, and are especially drunk as “teas,” or tisanes. (A tisane is a beverage prepared and drunk in the manner of tea, which does not contain any leaves from the tea plant, Camellia sinensis).

Traditionally, upset stomach and indigestion was treated with a tisane of lemon balm, mint, ginger, licorice, catnip, fennel, sweet basil, or a combination of the above. Catnip tea was used as a sedative, along with lavender, chamomile, coriander or cilantro; peppermint could also be used to loosen phlegm, and a tisane of thyme with honey was used as a sore throat remedy and for scratchy coughs. Sage tea was recommended as a gargle or mouthwash for toothache or sore throat, tea from dried rosemary was used to induce sweating, to break a fever, and the list goes on and on.

Certain flowers have also been used with herbs in tisanes, for flavor as well as medicinal benefit. These include bee balm, carnations, hibiscus blossoms, hollyhock, honeysuckle flowers (but not the berries), nasturtiums, pansies, citrus blossoms, elderberry flowers and ripe berries (but not the leaves or unripe berries), and gardenia blossoms.

In modern times these herbs can add the same comfort and healthfulness to life. The basic recipe for making tisanes: put a fat handful of fresh, clean, herbs into a teapot and cover them with boiling water; the mixture of herbs is up to you. Steep for up to 10 minutes, or to taste, strain, and drink. Sugar, honey, or lemon may be added, although milk and cream are not generally added to herbal tisanes.

Make sure your tisane ingredients are organic and safe to eat; plants and flowers from a florist have been treated with chemicals and are not for eating or drinking! If you gather wild herbs, choose only those that have been grown without pesticides, and avoid any that have grown along a roadside (they have absorbed exhaust and oil from the road traffic). The best way of ensuring that your tea herbs are food-safe is to grow them at home. Many medicinal herbs can be grown easily in pots or in the ground, which puts them virtually at your fingertips when you need them! Why not plant yourself an herbal tea garden?  *NOTE: If you are going to use any herbs, first make sure they are food safe. Always consult your doctor before beginning any system of medical treatment, including the use of medicinal herbs in tisanes.

Copyright 2011, Elizabeth Urbach.

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For more info:
Anderson, Robert V., Mixin’s and Fixin’s. Chandler Press, Maynard, MA. 1988.
Clausen, Ruth Rogers, “An Herbal Tea Garden.”
England, Angela, “Medieval Herb Garden Plants, Part 1”
England, Angela, “Medieval Herb Garden Plants, Part 2”
England, Angela, “Medieval Herb Tea”
article from Country Living magazine: “Homemade Herbal Teas”
Mescher, Virginia, Historic Uses of Herbs in the Mid-Nineteenth Century and Home Remedies, Including Medical, Beauty, and Household Usages of Herbs. Nature’s Finest, Burke, VA. 1993.
Morton, Sally, “A Medicinal Herb Garden”
Richerson, Sheri Ann, “Herbal Tea Garden Design: Using Mint, Lemon Balm and Chamomile for a Themed Garden”
Rose Magazine

Wickes, Jennifer A., “Edible Flowers”


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Filed under Glossary & Terminology, Health, History, Recipes, Tips

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