What many of us refer to as ‘herbal tea’ doesn’t actually contain any tea leaves. Tea is the term for the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, which grows well in Asia but is much more difficult to cultivate in the United States. For this reason, there are almost no domestic ‘teas’ available (although some growers are hoping to change this, notably Roy Fong of San Francisco’s Imperial Tea Court*).
Tisanes (‘tee-zahn’), a lesser-known French term for any hot herbal beverage (excluding Camellia Sinensis, of course), fell out of usage early this century but is making a comeback. Americans began substituting the word ‘tea’ for decidedly non-tea hot drinks during our famous rebellion against the tyranny of England and King George’s tea tax. The colonials began to refer, during the shortage that followed the Boston Tea Party, to common substitutes--such as ‘Labrador tea,’ made from a plant in the heath family that grows in bogs and other wet areas--as ‘tea.’ One of the most renowned tisanes is 'mint tea,' frequently made from dried peppermint although I can attest that spearmint is also delightful with a touch of honey.
The use of tisanes for medicinal purposes has long been recorded in numerous cultures, including the ancient Greeks (who enjoyed a kind of barley infusion) and Egyptians (who liked hibiscus tisanes, among others). We continue to be reintroduced to the notable health benefits that tisanes can offer and which many of our ancestors used as traditional remedies for everything from an upset stomach to a headache.
As a bonus, tisanes do not generally contain caffeine, making them an excellent alternative to tea for those who are more sensitive to stimulants.
While plenty of plants can be foraged to create flavorful tisanes, not all are safe to pluck out of the garden, meadow or forest and boil in hot water. Check carefully before embarking on homemade tisanes to ensure you don’t accidentally ingest something not meant for consumption! It also takes a thoughtful hand to develop well-blended tisanes that both uses herbs and medicinal plants and is enjoyable to sip. One important difference between teas and tisanes: tisanes frequently need to steep longer, so be sure to follow the recommended brewing instructions.
At the Perennial Collective, we are fortunate to have many excellent small farmers who work directly with us supplying organic and sustainable botanics for a variety of seasonal tisanes. You can learn more about our blends in our shop–they change with each harvest season and are available only in limited quantities exclusively through Perennial.
*For additional sources of U.S.-grown tea, check out this helpful list.
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Bonnie Rubrecht is a writer and illustrator living on the Central Coast of California. She is also Content Editor for Tea Leaves Blog.