Herbal “teas” are becoming more and more popular as people become more health conscious, but what are herbal teas? Do they differ from tisanes? Are they even really tea?
Technically speaking, herbal “teas” aren’t teas at all because, although they comprise flowers, seeds, fruit, leaves, bark, roots, and stems, there are no actual tea leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant. These herbal concoctions are known in the tea world as tisanes, which is a term that comes from the Latin or Greek (ptisana or ptisanē, respectively) meaning “crushed barley.” First used around the 14th century, the term tisane refers to an infusion of dried herbs (like those mentioned above) that is consumed as a beverage for medicinal benefit.
Tisanes have been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic Indian medicine to treat countless health ailments. The use of these caffeine-free blends (except yerba mate, which does have caffeine), which contain aromatherapeutic properties, is believed to both soothe and rejuvenate the body and the mind.
Today, tisanes have become immensely popular in the West, used as a means to detox, calm down at the end of the day, hasten a speedy recovery from a cold or the flu, or help induce sleep. Simply walk into a Whole Foods’ or other natural grocery store’s tea and coffee aisle and you’ll find a number of brands that offer a tisane for nearly every ailment out there, from herbal blends that offer to help a new mom with lactation to others that claim to ease constipation or a sore throat.
One of the major appeals of tisanes is that they’re easy enough to throw together at home with simple ingredients from the spice cabinet. In the 17th century, the English physician, apothecary, astrologist, and botanist Nicholas Culpeper published The English Physician, now known as Complete Herbal. This book collected hundreds of herbal ingredients and their medicinal properties, and, although Culpeper was considered a radical in his day, his reference book is still widely used today.
Here are some of the common ingredients used in tisanes today:
Roots: According to Linda Gaylard in The Tea Book, roots “have their own microculture of organisms, insects, and nutrients, which gives them health-giving properties.” As the lifeline of the plant, some of the most popular roots for use in herbal blends are licorice, burdock root, ginger, dandelion root, and chicory.
Fruits and Seeds: The health benefits of seeds and fruits are well known, making them a classic and popular choice in herbal blends. Fennel has powerful anti-inflammatory properties, and blueberries are considered a superfood with powerful antioxidant properties. Other popular additions to herbal blends include citrus peel and cardamom.
Bark: One of the more popular tisane additions in recent years, bark requires some special care when used in an herbal blend through a process known as decoction. Used especially for their ability to quell a cold, some popular barks are slippery elm, willow bark, wild cherry, and the ever-popular cinnamon.
Flowers: With detoxifying and anti-inflammatory properties, flowers are used by and large because they add an impressive color and flavor to a tisane. Lavender, for example, is known for it’s calming aroma and is used as a remedy for countless ailments like anxiety, stress, and digestive woes. Other popular flowers are hibiscus, osmanthus, and chamomile.
Leaves: One of the more confusing elements of tisane ingredients, leaves likeyerba mate and rooibos are often mistaken for true tea. Rooibos actually comes from a South African bush and is caffeine free but contains powerful antioxidants, while yerba mate is grown mostly in Brazil and Argentina and comes from an evergreen plant high in caffeine, making it the only tisanethat actually contains caffeine. Other popular herbal leaves packed with beneficial enzymes and proteins are lemon verbena, mint, basil, and mulberry leaf.
If you prefer the health benefits of both herbs and pure tea, there are countless tea blends that combine the characteristics of Camellia sinensis tea leaves with any variety of flowers, bark, stems, and so on. Some good examples are Orange Spice (Ceylon tea, orange peel, dried ginger, and cloves) and Earl Grey.