On Tea Blending and Herbal Teas

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A little while ago, I posted a picture on Instagram of a pot of tea that was a seemingly-random mix of things I tossed into a teapot and steeped in hot water and that tasted good. I got a comment asking if I’d consider making a video about blending herbal teas and sourcing herbs, but on thinking about it, I decided that it really fit a written post format better. I have gone into herbal tea blends a bit in the herbal tea section of my Tea Primer, but I thought I’d expand a bit on how I blend teas, since it really applies to so many things I make in my life. So this post is an attempt to expand on how I source and blend herbs.

Sourcing Botanical Ingredients:

Now, I’m going to refer to “botanical ingredients” or “botanicals” instead of “herbs” because there is some ambiguity about what makes a plant an “herb” versus a “spice,” and other categories of botanicals. And I use all kind of plants to create my botanical blends. It’s important to remember that herbal tea doesn’t just need to be botanicals from the herb store, and that everything we ingest has some effect on our body. So distinguishing between medicinal and culinary herbs or herbs and spices is largely arbitrary and meaningless.

So my first recommendation is to see what you can get from your local grocery store. I’m fortunate that my grocery store has a large selection of bulk botanicals, so I can buy small amounts of things I need for my herbal studies, as well as botanical ingredients for my kitchen (although all my herbs live in the kitchen). But I recognize that that’s not the norm, at least in the States, so I wanted to remind people with more traditional grocery stores to search the spice aisle of their grocery stores, too. And the produce section! I get fresh ginger root every week from the produce section, and lately I’ve always been grabbing a couple citrus fruits for their peels. Your store may even have fresh sage or mint in the produce section, and these make lovely teas.

In the spice aisle, I get cardamom, cinnamon sticks, star anise pods, fennel seeds, allspice berries, and other spices I might use once in a while. If you’re interested in flavoring your own rooibos, a whole vanilla bean split and buried in a jar of rooibos leaves is supposed to be amazing (I am not a fan of vanilla-scented teas). I’ve also used dried, rubbed sage from the spice section for sage tea when I can’t find fresh. I don’t recommend using powdered spices for teas, as they’re usually of dubious freshness, and can make an unpleasantly gritty cup of tea, but if you don’t mind a bit of sugar, some chopped crystallized ginger makes a nice substitute. Some stores even sell dried orange peel. And I’ve been known to use black peppercorns in some of my blends (even better if they have that fancy multi-colored peppercorn blend because each color has a subtly different flavor).

Once you’ve exhausted the offerings at your grocery store, I highly recommend you look around and see if there is a local herb shop near you. Before we moved house, I lived near the fabulous Smile Herb Shop (I’m still not far from them, but it’s not walking-distance anymore, which makes me sad), so I could go there and get things in person. Going to a shop in person not only gives you the opportunity to see and smell the botanicals before you pay for them, but also gives you a community of herbal experts and enthusiasts with whom to connect and discuss favorite blends. Plus, they may even offer classes. So go to Google and see if there’s an herb shop near you (be aware that you may end up getting results that sell CBD, kratom, or cannabis, if that’s legal in your area!). The Herbal Academy also has a list of farms and suppliers by region, that might help, as does Living Awareness.  And if you’re in the DC area, stop by Smile, and then go next door and say hi to my acupuncturist, Jared!

Now, at a certain point, you’re going to need to source something online. I mentioned in my Tea Primer that my two favorite stores for online sourcing were Mortar and Petal* on Etsy and Mountain Rose Herbs, and these recommendations still stand, but I wanted to go into a bit more detail about how I use each of them.

Mountain Rose is my favorite place to get excellent-quality botanical ingredients, as well as other things like oils, butters, and some seasonings. The botanicals are always incredibly high-quality and they are transparent about their sourcing practices. Plus they have amazing customer service. But for most of their botanicals, the smallest quantity they sell is 4 oz. and the shipping costs make it more cost-effective to only buy rather large quantities at a time anyway. So I don’t prefer buying from them when I’m creating a new blend of exploring new botanicals because I’ll have to buy too much at once. But most of my standbys and favorites come from Mountain Rose. I have big bags of chamomile, oatstraw, red raspberry leaf, and lavender from them, as well as some things I can’t really find anywhere else of as good quality, like linden (one of my recent favorites!). Back when I still forced myself to drink nettle infusion regularly, I bought nettles from them, and I’ve waxed rhapsodic about their fabulous dried peppermint in the past.

But when I’m developing a new blend or I want to try a small amount of a botanical ingredient I can’t find at my local store, I turn to Mortar and Petal. They sell small quantities, maybe just a half an ounce to two ounces, so I can try a bit and not waste things if I don’t like it, and they ship things simply in a padded mailer to keep shipping costs down, rather than sending a whole box. When I was developing my pregnancy tea recipe, I knew I wanted it to be mostly red raspberry leaf, with other botanicals primarily for flavor, so I ordered small amounts of the flavoring ingredients from Mortar and Petal and got a pound of red raspberry leaf from Mountain Rose to make it. They’ve also been wonderful as I’ve been going through my herbalism course to try small amounts of botanicals that I might not normally use for my Materia Medica.

Finally, don’t forget about your tea sellers! I got a package of gorgeous large chrysanthemum flowers from Yunnan Sourcing, and some delicious chrysanthemum buds from Seven Cups. Mountain Stream Teas has a roselle hibiscus that is amazing (it really does taste like biting into a fresh strawberry). Often tea sellers come across other botanicals in their sourcing missions and decide to buy some of those as well, so don’t discount a seller just because they primarily sell C. sinensis. And tea sellers can be an excellent place to find ingredients that are not common in western herbalism, like chrysanthemum or other botanicals common in traditional Chinese medicine.

Storing Your Botanical Ingredients Properly

Now that you have your botanical ingredients, you want to keep them in tip-top shape so they last for you. Most botanicals I buy come in a zip-top bag. I like the bags from Mountain Rose because they’re nice and thick and they close reliably, but if I get botanicals in a less sturdy bag, I will usually move them to a glass jar. Mason jars are wonderful, as are just any jar you’ve saved from pantry goods or jams or such. I’ve written in the past about my love of jars and botanical storage is an excellent reason to start your own collection.

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Keeping botanicals air-tight is not the only concern, however. You also want to keep them away from heat and light. Now, my kitchen is reasonably well-set-up so that I can keep my botanicals in a kitchen cabinet away from my stove so they stay fresh (I do keep culinary spices near the stove, but those don’t generally last too long before I use them up!). Because my pantry is open, I prefer to keep things in a cabinet to keep them in the dark. Storing your botanicals in jars also makes for a more organized presentation when you’re storing them, although I do still have to dig around in the back of the cabinet to pull things out when I’m making a complicated blend.

Other than that, the other important storage thing to keep in mind is to label the date that you either purchased or opened the botanical ingredients. I use the purchase date for botanicals I buy locally from a bulk store, and the opened date for botanicals from Mountain Rose that were in sealed bags, once I break the seal. Having the date on your botanicals is important because they do lose potency over time, no matter how good quality they are and how carefully you store them. That said, there’s no general rule for how long you can keep botanical ingredients. I have some red raspberry leaf that I got almost two years ago that’s still fragrant and delicious. So use your nose, eyes, and tongue to tell if your ingredients are still good.

Blending Delicious Herbal Teas

Alright, now you have your botanical ingredients and you’ve given them a lovely place to live. But how do you make them taste good together? Well, the short answer is that they taste good or they don’t; the only way to find out what tastes good to you is to experiment. But there are some culinary ideas that might help you reduce the error portion of “trial and error.”

First of all, understanding balanced flavors can be important. When I make a salad dressing or a marinade, I know that it’s important to balance flavors like salty, sweet, spicy, and tart. So if I add too much soy sauce to my marinade, I know I need to balance it with something like vinegar, and then if the vinegar is too sharp, I might add some honey or sugar. So I can translate that to tea, and if I’m making a tea blend with roselle, I know that can be quite tart, so I might want to tone it down with something sweeter or more fragrant. Perhaps I want to punch it up with some ginger, or tone it down with a sweet floral like chamomile.

On the flip side of that, you’ll also want to think about things that go well together. Contrasts are nice, but so is coordination. It’s why carrots and dill are often paired together — they’re both from the same botanical family, so their flavors meld particularly well. Now, I happen to despise dill, so I will use something like fennel in dishes that call for dill for a similar effect (fennel is also from the family Apiaceae). In herbal teas, the two main families to know about are Apiaceae and Lamiaceae. The first has your carrot relatives, including fennel, dill, cumin, parsley, anise, and many other herbs. The second is the minty family, with mints, as well as things like sage, lavender, thyme, and other fragrant botanicals. A very large portion of our catalog of botanical ingredients come from these two families, and knowing the plants in each can help you create harmonious blends. It’s why lavender and peppermint go so well together. Using botanicals in a similar family is a good starting point for a blend.

Another place to go for inspiration is, again, your grocery store and local shops. Perhaps you see a bagged tea that sounds interesting, or even that you already like, but you want a loose-leaf version. Or maybe there’s a tea that seems pretty good, but you think it would be better slightly different (I feel this way about pretty much every blend that uses licorice or stevia). Look at the back of the box and see what’s in it, and then play around with your own blend. Or look at a caffeinated blend and see if the flavors in it might be a good caffeine-free blend, such as the Jade Citrus Mint at Starbucks. The combination of peppermint, lemongrass, and other citrus is pretty classic. Personally, my go-to bedtime tea grew out of loving the Lavender Chamomile tea from Traditional Medicinals and wanting to make it with less trash from packets and teabags.

Ultimately, the best way to tell what blends taste good is to taste them. It’s important to taste pure botanicals to know what they taste like so you can see if you can guess what they might taste like in a blend. It’s similar to how I might taste plain honey or vinegar to remind myself how sweet or sharp it is to decide how much to add to a marinade or dressing. The other inspiration for my lavender chamomile blend was the fact that I wasn’t originally a fan of chamomile, but I thought the sweet floral flavor would pair nicely with the sharper, more camphorous floral of the lavender. And they do. Plus, I recently tasted some valerian root infusion (which smells like feet) and was surprised at how sweet it was, so that will inform any future blends in which I use it.

So feel free to start with single-note teas, I like to use at least a heaped teaspoon per 8 fl. oz. of water, with boiling water, steeped covered for 10-15 minutes, and then strained (some herbs get unpleasant if steeped too long). My favorite single-ingredient teas are fresh sliced ginger, fresh peppermint (I use a handful for a 16-oz. pot), chrysanthemum, and roselle. I use all of these ingredients in blends, but I originally started out with the simple infusion.

Many of my most complicated blends started out as single-note teas that I played with, kind of like writing a melody and then adding flourishes and harmonies to create a full choral piece. I couldn’t decide between chrysanthemum or ginger the other day, so I mixed them, and then added things as they sounded good. The result was the very complicated blend that I posted on Instagram the other week. Play around. Don’t be afraid to make something strange. Tastes are subjective and I’m not here to yuck anyone’s yum.

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So by way of an example, I wanted to go into detail about a blend I made recently. As I said, it started with indecision about whether I wanted ginger tea or chrysanthemum tea. Then, I wanted something to pump up the florality. Inspired by the classic Chinese “Eight Treasures” tea, I decided to add roses for a different floral note and some goji berries for their earthy sweetness. Finally, I added cardamom because 1.) I love cardamom, and 2.) it has a slight citrus note and I didn’t feel like peeling citrus. I could have added some orange peel if I felt like getting out the peeler. As far as sources, the roses, ginger, goji berries, and cardamom all came from my grocery store, while the chrysanthemum came from Yunnan Sourcing. I weighed out each ingredient as I added it and made a note so I could adjust it later. I think I could use a little more ginger and a little less rose next time.

Probably the most important part of tea blending is to take notes. Whether it’s a notes file on your phone or a dedicated tea blending journal, write down what you’re doing, or else you’ll never be able to replicate it. I like to use weight when I’m designing a new blend in a focused way, but I’ll also use a volume measurement, like the lovely wooden spoons my mother gave me. I’m terrible about writing things down, and there is a certain meditative sense of ephemera in creating a blend that you’ll never have again, but usually we want to be able to reproduce our delicious efforts. AND you’ll especially want to write down the fails so you don’t repeat them!

Finally, I want to encourage you to include C. sinensis in your blending experiments, if you drink it normally. Tea is just another botanical ingredient, and was originally considered an herbal medicine. In fact, when it first came to the western world, it was viewed as a remedy for gout, rather than a pleasure drink. So go ahead and blend some Tieguanyin with roses or some chrysanthemum with puerh. Botanicals love to play together.

A Note about Herbal Safety

Now, I am not an herbalist or a medical professional. But it is not an exaggeration to say that plants have effects on our bodies, and you would do well to keep that in mind as you blend botanicals. Especially if you take medications or have a condition that might make your health a little precarious, it’s important to know what the constituents of different plants might do in the body. So even if you’re not going to take an herbalism course, it would be a good idea to keep a reference collection of books on botanicals. I primarily use three books in my studies right now: The Way of Herbs, by Michael Tierra; A Modern Botanical, by Mrs. M. Grieves (also available online for free); and The Modern Herbal Dispensatory, by Easley and Horne. They are a good mix of science and folklore information, and have a pretty good variety of information. I always look up an ingredient, at least in Grieves, before using it in a blend to double-check that it’s not going to interact in an unexpected way.

So I hope that was an interesting introduction to my thoughts about blending botanicals. Let me know if you find any favorite blends!

NB: I am not a medical professional and none of this should be taken as medical advice or intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease. Additionally, everything mentioned in the post was purchased by me and all thoughts are my own. Some links may be affiliate links (marked with an asterisk), which will support the running of this blog if you make a sale through them. Please read my contact and collaboration information if you are interested in working with me.

When Tea Isn’t Tea

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One of the constant battles among the community of tea connoisseurs is how to talk about infusions of plants that are not Camellia sinensis. There are those that are staunchly in the “tisane” camp — it’s not “tea” if it’s not from the tea plant. Others are perfectly happy to use the term “herbal tea.” Interestingly enough, history and linguistics bear out this camp, as the term “tisane” originally referred to a barley-based beverage and was not brought into the common lexicon to mean something other than C. sinensis steeped in hot water until modern times. In fact, in the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a recipe known as “beef tea” that was similar to a modern broth (interestingly enough, though Isabella Beeton’s 1860s book has recipes for “beef tea,” a similar dish made from chicken is called “chicken broth”). And I have found other instances of infusions of non-C. sinensis ingredients referred to as “teas.”

But this is a digression. You see, not all teas I drink are “true teas.” In fact, one of my earliest tea posts on this blog was my formula for my Gardener’s Herbal Tea, a blend of nettles, rosehips, red raspberry leaf, and oatstraw. Along with my love of C. sinensis, I’ve also had a passion for exploring herbal remedies since I was young. And in my Tea Primer, I expanded a bit on how I handle herbal teas (or tisanes or infusions, as you will) in general terms. But I would love to take more time in this space to talk about specific herbal remedies, and one of my tea goals for 2020 is to learn more about herbal traditions outside of the Euro-centric traditions I’ve primarily followed. So, to that end, I’ve decided to pursue some formal studies in herbalism.

This coincided with my own realization that I had stopped using one of my longtime personal herbal remedies, red raspberry leaf, since giving birth. I had been drinking red raspberry leaf tea for well over a year, starting from the time we first started thinking about trying to conceive, and on through my miscarriage, and then my pregnancy with Elliot. In fact, my pregnancy announcement on my YouTube channel was a tea session where I made a cup of red raspberry leaf tea. But I became thoroughly sick of it by the time Elliot was born (nearly two weeks late!) and had stopped drinking it in favor of other things after his birth. But in chatting with a friend on Instagram, I realized that I had always appreciated its support during my monthly cycle, and so I came home that night, mixed up a big pot of red raspberry leaf with chrysanthemum, orange, and some local honey for taste, and sat down with my mug in hand to explore my herbalism course options.

I discovered that one of the greats of herbal healing, Rosemary Gladstar, offers an online course that even has an option to sample just the first lesson for a modest price before committing the time and money to the full course. So I leapt at that and am now awaiting my first lesson to see how I like the course style. Hopefully, I’ll enjoy it, but for now I’m reading the books on herbalism I already have while I wait (along with maybe one or two new purchases), and have even ordered some fresh packets of herbs I’ve liked in the past. I’m excited to start this journey and have you all along with me, and I will almost certainly post updates as I progress!

Hand Sewing the Lila + June Wrap Skirt

I finished my first proper sewing project from a pattern this weekend! I’ve been sharing some little updates along the way as I work on this lovely skirt, but I thought I ought to write a longer post detailing my process, how I deviated from the original pattern, and lessons I’ve learned along the way. Perhaps others who might be interested in sewing this pattern, but who don’t have a sewing machine, might be interested in my thoughts.

So first of all, I chose this skirt because 1.) the pattern is free, 2.) it’s a wrap skirt so sizing is very forgiving, and 3.) I know Kirsten, who owns L+J. Also, I’ve been spending a lot of my time exploring sewing YouTube videos and it’s inspiring me to sew, plus I enjoyed the embroidery project I picked up recently. I find the physical act of stitching to be very relaxing. But my one experience with a sewing machine, when I tried to “help” my mother with my Halloween costume one year, went poorly and I don’t really have a good place to put a machine right now anyway. So I decided to see if I could hand-sew the entire thing. Yes, I’m a little mad. But we’re all mad here, so here we go.

Fabric Choice:

I chose a medium-weight, quilting cotton from Fabric.com because it was inexpensive, solid colored, and machine washable. I didn’t want to break the bank with my first project because there was always a chance I’d fail utterly and have to scrap it, but I wanted something in a color I would wear, and solid so I could pair it with more tops. I also chose some all-cotton green thread.

Of course, when the fabric and thread arrived, I discovered the pitfalls of shopping online, namely that the colors don’t match as well as I’d have liked. But they match well enough and the very little stitching that is visible on the outside of the garment isn’t too jarring. When my fabric arrived, I washed and dried it, and then got ready to go!

Time Commitment:

So from the day I cut out the pattern until the day I tied off the last stitch, it was exactly a month to make this skirt. I did sit on the fabric for a little while because it arrived while we were in the process of moving house, and for a while I didn’t really have any space to lay out fabric. But after the initial move finished, I found myself with the time. But I will say that I only worked on the skirt maybe two days per week because I have a full-time job, a baby, and family and friends who insist on claiming some of my time on the weekend. If I had worked on it for a few hours every day, I might have been able to finish in a week or two. One day, perhaps I will take off a week from work to test this theory.

The biggest time sink was the hem. It’s a circle and then some, so that’s understandable. And I chose not to do the topstitching on the waistband and ties to save some time. Surprisingly, I found the side seams to be relatively quick. I actually cut the back panel of the skirt on a fold to save myself a seam, but in retrospect, one more seam wouldn’t have been that much work, and it would have been nice to have that center back seam to line up the waistband.

Stitches:

When I first started out, I was inordinately grateful for this video from Bernadette Banner on the basic stitches for historical hand-sewing. I found that going to historical practice blogs and YouTube channels was really helpful because they’re the ones using hand sewing to construct garments, rather than just for finishing or decorative work. I also appreciated this page on hand-finishing stitches. I used her Frenched seam finish on my side seams, rather than sewing each seam twice like you would on a machine.

I did my side seams in backstitch, finished the seams with a whip stitch, and felled the hem. I backstitched on the waistband, twice (my pride and joy is the inside waistband seam, which I backstitched without pricking through to the front), and used a slip stitch to close up the rest of the waist ties. As mentioned before, I skipped topstitching the waist band and ties. Those are the only deviations from the printed pattern.

So that’s my skirt process. It’s delightfully twirly and I’m thoroughly enjoying wearing it. Of course I welcome any questions you might have for me! Let me know if you have any sewing projects you’re working on, as I’m definitely planning my next project.

Adventures in Crafting

My longer-term followers might remember that I have been a crafter for a few years, and even crocheted my own wedding shawl, which I have saved for a future generation. But, as my life has become more hectic, I’m finding myself with less time for crochet and other crafts. So in recent weeks, I’ve been endeavoring to find more time to myself, and since we have not yet fully unpacked, our television is largely useless, and I’ve turned to crafts to fill some of the time with contemplative leisure.

Of course, I’ve come to realize in recent years that large crochet projects are not something that I enjoy. While I appreciate ultimately finishing a project, more often than not, I get bored and abandon the project before I can finish. So when we moved house, I decided to get rid of almost all of my yarn, save a few special pieces for smaller projects. I kept my wool from the Knockando wool mill in Scotland, for example. I also found a new craft kit that I’d bought a while ago, when I was trying to find ways to distract myself while we were trying to conceive: an embroidery kit.

Like many, perhaps, I watched my mother and other female relatives do cross-stitch when I was a girl. I even wanted to try my hand at it, but perhaps from my natural inclination for abandoning past-times, I never got very far. But when I saw these floral initial kits on the Instagram page for a local fabric and craft store, I was smitten. So I bought one. And then I put it in a box and forgot about it.

The first day we sent Elliot to daycare, I was lost. I had the entire day completely to myself for the first time in months. So I picked up this embroidery kit and started it. It’s relatively simple and has everything you might need, save perhaps a small pair of embroider scissors, which really do make a difference when snipping tiny threads. I enjoyed sitting on my sofa and making my tiny stitches like a genteel lady of the past. And it reminded me that I love stitchery. So not only am I eager to finish this project and start a new one, possibly of my own designing, but I’ve also started looking into trying my hand at sewing. And when I say “trying my hand,” I mean literally, as I have neither the equipment or expertise to operate a sewing machine. So after I finish my embroidery project, I’ll be starting on my first proper sewing project, with a pattern and everything.

I have of course, been warned about the tedium of hand-sewing, particularly on a garment with a rather large hemline, but I do find the simplicity almost meditative. I enjoy the moments I have to sit and stitch and focus my mind on that task, feeling how such crafts connect us not only with our own minds and hands, but also with the centuries of people who did the same for their own garments. And who knows? Perhaps I shall hone my sewing skills enough to be able to mend my own clothes more readily, which seems an admirable goal in this age of sustainability and an avoidance of waste.

And so I’ve found myself returning to the quiet, old-fashioned pastimes that I’ve done before. Of course, such hobbies go beautifully with a cup of tea to fortify oneself. What are your favorite crafts, readers?

The Tea Leaves and Tweed Tea Primer: Side Quest (Tisanes and Herbal “Teas”)

As I mentioned in the prologue, the primary focus of this tea primer is true tea, made from Camellia sinensis. As such, I am loathe to consider herbal infusions or tisanes as “teas” (heck, even Benedict Cumberbatch has waded into this fray). But I do frequently enjoy infusions and tisanes of herbs and spices, and I thought I’d talk a little bit about my philosophy on herbal teas, where I get my herbs, how I prepare them, and share some of my favorite blends.

First of all, in herbals as well as teas, I prefer loose-leaf. I will use teabags in a pinch, but I find the flavor from loose-leaf herbs to be far superior. Plus, I love to create my own blends. One problem I have with commercial herbal blends is that they often contain ingredients to make them taste sweeter, or to cover the flavor of less palatable herbs. In layman’s terms, this usually means stevia, licorice root, or cinnamon, all of which I don’t particularly like. Cinnamon I can tolerate in specific blends, but only if it’s there for a reason, and not just to elevate the flavor of a blend with a particularly unpopular taste. So obviously the blends and opinions I share here will be heavily influenced by my own tastes. But the nice thing about blending your own herbal teas is that you can follow your tastes and see what works for you.

A Note About the Health Effects of Herbal Teas:

Personally, I came to herbal tea from my investigation into amateur herbalism. I’ve taken some training over the years, and done some self-study of herbal medicine, and have a decent understanding of a limited field of common herbal remedies, which I use for myself and my family members for minor complaints. Do note that I’m not a medical professional or even a licensed herbalist and I can’t give you advice on what to use for your own complaints, just a description of what works for me. I’m talking about really gentle things like ginger for an upset tummy or a cup of chamomile tea before bed.

But I think it is important to remember that herbs do have constituents that can affect our health, in both positive and negative ways. Personally, when I use herbs, I like to stick to traditional methods of ingestion: mostly infusions in water, with the occasional salve/oil/tincture/vinegar. I don’t generally take tablets or capsules of whole plants because most plants weren’t just eaten whole, unless they were food plants. Plus, I find a lot of benefit, personally, from the experience of a nice cup of tea than from popping a pill. But that’s just my preference.

All that said, most herbal teas, drunk for taste and pleasure, are probably not going to have enough plant matter in them to cause a strong reaction, unless you have a specific condition. I think it’s important to know what’s in your teas and what effects it can have, but for the most part, expecting a strong medicinal effect from the amount of plants used in a cup of herbal tisane drunk for enjoyment is unrealistic. Personally, I’ve started keeping more of an eye on this since becoming pregnant, as the body can be more sensitive to certain actions, and also I sometimes brew my loose-herb tisanes stronger than the typical cup made with a teabag.

I generally consult multiple sources to determine if there is any evidence that an herb might cause an adverse effect. Of course, almost all herbs are labeled with an obligatory “if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, consult your doctor” because there just aren’t a lot of studies of herbs on pregnant women. And similarly, there just aren’t a lot of studies of certain herbal remedies. So when I’m curious if a tea might have an adverse effect, I tend to check these three places: Mountain Rose Herbs (where I buy a lot of my herbs), Botanical.com, and WebMD.

These three resources give different layers of information. WebMD gives me information any known interactions with medication or specific medical conditions (such as the possible blood-thinning effects of chamomile). Mountain Rose Herbs usually gives a warning if there is a specific action that you should be aware of (such as using caution when taking chamomile if you are allergic to other members of the Asteraceae family, which includes ragweed). And Botanical.com gives a more complete picture of the chemical constituents of an herb, its historical usage, and how different parts are used. That said, these are not the resources I used to gain a working knowledge of using herbs for my health, but that is a topic for another time. If you’re interested in gaining more knowledge about herbal healing traditions, I’d highly recommend seeing if you have a local herb store that offers classes.

Finally, it’s important when choosing herbal tisanes and infusions to know exactly what plant you’re getting. True tea, as I’ve mentioned before, is from only one species of plant, Camellia sinensis, but herbs can have a multitude of names, and sometimes the same name can refer to different species of plants. Using the chamomile example above, “chamomile” can refer to Anthemis nobilis or Matricaria chamomilla. Fortunately, both of these have similar effects. But another example is cinnamon: what most of us have in our spice racks is actually cassia cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia), which contains a chemical constituent called coumarin, which can have adverse effects in the body. Another kind of cinnamon, Cinnamomum verum, which is called Ceylon, sweet, or true cinnamon, doesn’t contain these coumarins. Both are sold simply as “cinnamon,” so it’s important to buy from a reputable seller who provides full Latin names if you have a condition that could interact with coumarins, to make sure you know what you’re getting (in fact, the form of cassia cinnamon sold at Mountain Rose Herbs is a third type of cinnamon, Cinnamomum burmannii, which can have even higher coumarin levels than C. cassia, but they clearly label the Latin name of the form they sell so you know what you’re getting).

So Where Do I Get Herbal Tea?

This all leads nicely into the discussion of where I source my herbs. As I mentioned, Mountain Rose Herbs is where I get a lot of my bulk herbs. If you’re very new, they sell herbs in a variety of sizes, so you can buy just an ounce or so of a bunch of different herbs. The shipping costs can be steep, but it generally balances out, and the quality is high. In particular, my absolute favorite dried peppermint comes from MRH. When you open the bag, your eyes water from the mintiness. And they ship things in thick, resealable, plastic zipper bags, so you can store your herbs in the bags they come in and be relative sure they will stay fresh. They offer a large variety of different herbs and spices and give the Latin name clearly, as well as a brief overview of uses and precautions right on the website. Plus, they have some extra things, like oils, butters, and accessories.

As I mentioned, the drawback of MRH is the shipping cost. Sometimes, if you’re only buying a little bit, the shipping cost will be as much or even more than the price of the herbs themselves. So when I’m buying small amounts of herbs to test out an herbal blend, I will often turn to Etsy sellers. In particular, for herbs, I’ve liked what I’ve gotten from Mortar and Petal, which is sadly currently closed for the holiday season. But when I was buying small amounts of herbs to test out a new blend for my pregnancy tea, I liked that I could buy just half an ounce or an ounce of a few different herbs and have them ship in a small padded envelope, rather than paying for the whole box-and-bubbles deal that comes from MRH. Plus, it’s less packing material.

But what about when I’m not in the mood to measure out loose herbs and muck about with an infuser? I’ve already admitted to using bagged tea for a real cuppa, and I will admit to drinking bagged tisanes as well. While I love my pyramid, whole-leaf bags for herbals as well as true tea, I also drink paper teabag tisanes. My favorite brands of tisanes that I can get in my store are Traditional Medicinals, Celebration Herbals, and Buddha Teas. All of these brands offer herbal “simples,” which means bags with just one kind of herb, which is nice, as well as blends. It’s important to read the ingredients lists and supplement facts for the blends to make sure you know what exactly is in the tea, though. I find that Traditional Medicinals, in particular, likes to add licorice and/or stevia to their blends to sweeten them, which I dislike. Also, other than Celebration Herbals, they’re not great about putting Latin names on the boxes sold in stores, so if you’re concerned about that, you’ll want to look them up on their websites.

But for an easy cup of tea, especially when I’m not feeling well, I like using bags. It’s also the easiest way to carry herbals around without getting sideways glances for keeping a bunch of unlabeled jars of dried leaves in your desk cabinet. And it’s basically the only way I get my husband to drink a cup of herbal tisane when he’s sick.

Finally, for spices and fresh herbs, I often just get my materials from my local grocery store. I’m fortunate to have a store nearby that sells a large variety of bulk whole spices, plus I generally try to keep a knob of ginger root on hand. And some herbs, I can grow in my wild little herb garden (mostly sage and peppermint, honestly).

Preparing Herbal Tisanes, Infusions, and Other Hot Drinks:

So first a note about terminology: Typically, a bit of plant that is put in some hot water and left to sit for a certain amount of time is called a “tea” or “tisane” or “infusion.” Some herbalists differentiate between “tisane” (or “tea”) and “infusion” by insisting that an “infusion” is a very strong steeping of an herb, meant to draw a medicinal quantity of the active constituents into the brew. I’m not quite so pedantic about, but I generally consider an infusion to be stronger than a tisane, and I also generally consider an infusion to be a cuppa brewed more for the medicinal benefit while a tisane is often just for the pleasure of it (although of course the lines blur).

There are multiple ways to make a hot drink with non-tea plant matter. Personally, I like to steep most leaves and flowers similarly to how I would steep a tea — plunk a bit of it in hot water, let it sit for a while, and then pull the leaves out and enjoy. If I want something stronger, I’ll put a large amount of plant matter in a heat-safe jar, fill with boiling water, cover and steep for an hour or more before straining. But generally, I brew a cup of “herbal tea” by taking a tea bag or 1-3 teaspoons of loose herbs and steeping them in boiling water for 5-15 minutes, depending on the plant in question. It definitely helps to play with brewing parameters with herbs because different herbs have different flavors and strength of flavors.

Now, this is for dried herbs. It is absolutely possible to make an enjoyable tisane from fresh herbs, but you have to remember two things: 1.) fresh herbs have more water content and will have less concentrated flavors, so you will need more plant matter for a brew, and 2.) fresh herbs will often have a different flavor than the dried version. For example, I love fresh thyme’s citrusy notes, but dried thyme isn’t something I enjoy. One of my favorite herbs to steep fresh is peppermint, which has a green freshness that you don’t get from the dried herb. I take a handful of fresh peppermint from my garden, wash it, and steep it in boiling water for five minutes or so, often leaving the leaves in the pot while I enjoy the tea.

But you can also make a lovely hot beverage from spices and roots, which often requires different handling. I generally make spiced teas by cracking the spices slightly and simmering them in water for 15 or so minutes to fully extract the flavor (also called a decoction). An example would be the tea I describe in this post. Simply steeping spices in hot water often doesn’t yield a strong enough flavor, although one of my favorite spice teas is thin slices of ginger root steeped in boiling water for upwards of 5-10 minutes (I just put ginger in a mug, add boiling water, and drink it grandpa-style, refilling as the ginger punch becomes too intense).

Finally, you don’t have to steep your herbs and spices in water. My favorite nightcap is a mixture of lavender and chamomile, and it is particularly nice steeped in hot milk (or milk substitute) with a little dollop of honey. I don’t let the milk boil, but I bring it up to about 165 F and let it steep for a little bit before straining out the bits of herbs. Spices are also quite nice steeped in milk.

Some of My Favorite Combinations:

Spice tea: fresh orange peel, fresh ginger, Ceylon cinnamon, allspice, and cardamom (I developed this for my chai-loving, caffeine-averse mother-in-law!)

Pregnancy tea: red raspberry leaf, rose petals, lemon and orange peel, and lemon verbena (I’ve been drinking a cup of this every day since entering my third trimester)

Gardener’s Herbal Tea: Nettles, oatstraw, red raspberry leaf, and rose hips

Lavender and chamomile tisane: 1 scant tsp. of lavender buds and 1 heaped tsp. of chamomile flowers, steeped in a mug of boiling water for 10 minutes (my go-to before bed if I’m not making the milk-steeped concoction described earlier)

Fresh mint tea: a handful of fresh mint leaves steeped liberally in boiling water (brilliant for summer afternoons, especially with a lime wheel)

Fresh ginger tea: 5-7 thin slices of fresh ginger, steeped in boiling water grandpa-style, sipped until too strong and then topped off with more water (this one is lovely with a dollop of honey and a squeeze of lemon when your throat is a little scratchy, and I generally make it to keep backstage at shows)

Sage and honey tea: 1 tsp. of dried sage or 5-7 fresh sage leaves, steeped in boiling water for 5 minutes, and then sweetened with a generous dollop of honey (this is my personal remedy for a nighttime cough)

NB: I am not a medical professional nor am I a professional herbalist and cannot give health advice concerning the use of herbs. All the teas I describe here are my personal blends and favorites and I encourage you to do your own research and find your own favorites.

My Soothing Nighttime Routine

In my recent post about rediscovering my meditation routine, I mentioned a bit of trouble I’ve been having getting to sleep. It’s actually not a terribly new problem. My generalized anxiety and OCD has always flared up right as I’m trying to fall asleep. It comes and goes, but lately, with late rehearsals and other excuses to stay up late, I found myself staying away into the wee hours and then dragging the next day, so I decided to make some changes.

First, I already had Night Shift enabled on my phone and F.lux on my laptop computer, but I made sure Night Shift was enabled on my iPad as well. That way, at least my evening viewing wouldn’t be as bad for my sleep habits. But lately, I’ve been trying hard not to mindlessly scroll through my phone when I’m supposed to be going to bed. For one, it’s very easy to get caught up scrolling through Instagram or reading an article and not do the things I need to do before bed (skin care, tooth care, etc.). Then, when I’m in bed, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve decided to “read one more thing” and then look up and realize it’s over an hour past my sleep time. So when I get into bed, I put the phone to the side and read an actual book.

As far as my nighttime beauty routines, those are generally set more by my body’s needs than my sleep needs, but lately I’ve been enjoying aromatherapy before bed. So I might reach for my Klairs toner or my Midnight Shift oil for a little relaxation boost from their lavender-based scents during my nighttime routine. Also, while I bought it for its skin and hair benefits, my mulberry silk pillowcase has proven a boon to my sleeping as well. I find it delicious to sink into when I go to bed, and when I sweat at night, the pillowcase wicks it away and dries quickly so I don’t feel as gross in the morning.

Getting into the more heavy-duty relaxation techniques, I’ve written before about how I brew herbal teas for various ailments, and sleep is no exception. While I can break out a more potent brew with valerian and other more powerful sedating herbs, I tend to stick to a simpler concoction for regular nightly use. I was going through so many Traditional Medicinals Chamomile with Lavender tea bags that I finally decided to just buy some bulk lavender and chamomile blossoms from Mountain Rose Herbs and mix my own nighttime tea. I store them separately and add two teaspoons of chamomile flowers to one scant teaspoon of lavender in a mug of hot water. I let that infuse while I’m doing my skin care, and then strain it and bring it to bed with my book.

Then, when I’m finally ready to turn off the light and sink into sleep, if I don’t feel completely exhausted from my day, I’ll take a little extra help from my Insight Timer app’s guided meditations. The app has a pretty good selection of guided meditations for sleep that I’ve been checking out. I tend to use the ones that are around 20 minutes long, although I’ve used longer ones for evenings when I’m in bed earlier. I generally don’t end up hearing the end of most of the apps. And then if I wake up in the middle of the night, I can remove my earbuds and let them hang to the ground, to be gathered up in the morning.

I hope hearing about my own nighttime routine can help my readers build their own routine. And I would always love hearing how you wind down for the day and go to bed.

NB: All products mentioned in this post are favorites of mine and I have not been given any incentive to mention them. All links are non-affiliate.

On Why I No Longer Make Soap

I’ve blogged before about making homemade soap. I used to make it both for my own use and as gifts. I even started making homemade soaps for gifts for the casts of various shows I’ve been in. Those who know me in real life will know that I haven’t been making soap lately, and readers of the blog might have noticed that I suddenly stopped posting about soap updates and new recipe ideas.

So, on a related note, recently another beauty Instagrammer and blogger, Goals to Get Glowing, posted on her Instagram about some pH tests she’d done of a couple cleansers she’d been trying. One of the cleansers had a pH of 9.5, which is quite high for a balanced facial cleanser. The brand attacked her for revealing this and claimed that their cleanser was fine because it was the same pH as soap.

Well, that’s not surprising because it *is* soap. The first ingredients after water are saponified oils. So, yes, it will have a pH similar to soap. But do we want to wash our faces with soap?

Well, when I first started making my own soap, it was part of my efforts to make my skin care routine as natural, traditional, and homemade as possible. So I would remove makeup with an oil-based cleanser, like my homemade cleansing balm, and then follow it with my own homemade soap. I found information about how using soap on your skin wouldn’t disrupt the balance of your skin if you used a pH-balancing toner, which I made out of diluted vinegar.

The problem with that, however, is that my skin apparently didn’t get that memo. I began to go from having relatively clear, easy-to-deal-with skin, to getting a lot of spots, along with dryness and redness in other parts of my face. I tried eliminating comedogenic oils and butters that I thought were the problem. And then, I found this post about pH in cleansers. So I went and bought a bottle of the natural, pH-5 cleanser that I’d been using before trying to switch to homemade products.

And it was like night and day. I didn’t have immediate results, but right away, my skin was less irritated. My active breakouts started going down and I had fewer spots to replace them. And my skin just felt nicer in the morning, less dry. I eventually picked up a few more tricks, such as using multiple layers of watery hydration instead of one heavy cream, and using occlusives when it’s dry out, but the first and biggest improvement I had was from changing to a low-pH cleanser.

Since then, I tried to relegate my homemade soap to being a body cleanser. But eventually, I noticed that I was having similar problems on the rest of my skin. Irritation in my armpits. Small bumps and spots on my legs. And even a fairly raging fungal infection that was probably at least helped along by having sensitized skin. So I switched to a low-pH body wash. I already use low-pH shampoos because my hair absolutely rebels when I use something alkaline.

So that really leaves my homemade soap somewhat neglected. And because I wasn’t using it myself and I noticed that I had so many skin problems that went away when I stopped using it, well, I find myself not feeling right giving it as gifts. It’s been months (possibly even over a year) since I’ve made a bar of soap, and I’m seriously considering giving away my soapy equipment. It is sad to lose a loved hobby, but I certainly have other pastimes to fill the empty space.

The Summer Afternoon Cuppa

Every so often, I will share my weekend cups of tea on Instagram and one thing may have become a bit apparent: I’m trying to drink less caffeine on the weekends, particularly in the afternoon. So I’ve started creating some lovely non-tea herbal and fruit infusion on the weekends.

One of my favorite herbs for an iced tea is red raspberry leaf. Long lauded as a remedy for all manner of “women’s trouble,” I like it for it’s dark, tannic bite that is reminiscent of black tea, without the caffeine. Mixed with a sweeter herb, like peppermint, and served over ice with a touch of local honey, this makes a lovely afternoon infusion.

I’ve also found a fondness for flower-based infusions. Red clovers have a grassy flavor and impart a pink color to an infusion. Mixed with lavender, the herbal-floral quality of the lavender mixes with the clover and makes a delightful infusion, particularly with a bit of honey and lemon.

Finally, sometimes I take my afternoon infusion hot. One of my favorite simple cups is an infusion of fresh mint leaves from my garden, steeped for a five to ten minutes, and served simply in a tea cup, with no additions. The brightness of the mint and the warmth of the water are perfectly comforting and invigorating, without being overly stimulating.

Of course, all of these are best enjoyed outdoors, if the weather permits, or else curled up next to a sunny window with a good book.

How to Make an Heirloom

When I was a little girl, I used to go over to my grandmother’s when I was sick on a school day. She made the most amazing blanket forts, using her handmade afghans. I remember actually disliking these blankets, with their uneven crochet fabric, the air coming through the holes in the knit and chilling me despite having a blanket on. But now, looking back, I’m embarrassed that I never asked my grandmother to teach me how to make afghans of my own.

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I learned how to crochet by watching videos on the internet one summer when I was bored and moderately depressed, living alone in the wake of a divorce and the death of my father. I had a couple of balls of yarn and a plastic crochet hook that I found in my sister’s room at my mother’s house one weekend, so over a few days at home alone in my apartment, I decided to teach myself to crochet. I managed to create a lumpy, purple scarf, and then snapped the plastic crochet hook because I’ve always held things too tightly in my hands. Just ask all the crayons I used as a child.

From there, I bought myself a new crochet hook and some more yarn. Before I knew it, I was hooked. I gave myself nerve damage in one hand come December when I decided to crochet all my holiday gifts. I joined Ravelry. And I managed to become good friends with a woman whose collection of yarn outstrips my collection of lipsticks (and her lipstick collection rivals mine; we are friends for a reason).

So when I started planning my wedding outfit, I realized that I should probably find some way to work my own handiwork into the mix. I decided on a crochet shawl to throw over my shoulders to guard against the potential chill of a spring morning. I decided on a color (a spearmint green to coordinate with the mint green of my dress), ordered my yarn (fingering weight wool), and got to work.

Like all my crochet projects, this one grows in fits and spurts. Weekends where we spend long hours sitting at home, I find it grows more. It grows when I sit off to one side at rehearsals, although that has stopped somewhat since I need to memorize my lines. It grows when I watch television, and very occasionally when I feel particularly motivated at work. I can carry my project in a zip-top bag, which I can throw into my purse with my packed lunch, script, and pencils, trusting that the plastic will protect it.

For, you see, this isn’t just a shawl. It’s not just an accessory for my wedding. I hope it will be an heirloom, like those handmade blankets my grandmother gave to all her children. Perhaps, one day, I will have a daughter of my own to whom to pass this shawl. Or a son; I wouldn’t judge. Or perhaps the shawl will serve no other purpose but to sit on my shoulders when I am old, but it will bring back memories of all the love that went into it.

But until then, I will watch my little heirloom grow, day by day, until it has its chance to shine in a couple months.

A DIY Emulsifying Cleansing Balm: An Update

So lately I’ve noticed that my number one most popular post here is my recipe for a homemade emulsifying cleansing balm, which I posted at the beginning of this year. I started exploring DIY last year because I couldn’t find an emulsifying balm commercially that fit my needs. I needed something without shea butter (because it clogs my pores) and using primarily high-linoleic oils (because they help prevent spots for me). Most of the cleansing balms out there are targeted to dry, mature skins that would benefit from heavy butters and high-oleic oils. Or else they contain a lot of essential oils or fragrance, which I’ve found irritates my eyes when I use the balm to remove eye makeup. Or they’re designed to be steamed off with a washcloth rather than emulsified before being rinsed or wiped away, which would leave a residue that my skin can’t handle. I also suspect that beeswax is an ingredient that plays havoc with my skin, particularly in a cleanser.

So I decided to make my own with some oils, mango butter, and basically what amounts to a homemade emulsifying wax, which is a mix of polysorbate and a fatty alcohol. And it worked rather nicely. Of course, I later found a cleansing oil that was less expensive to buy, fragrance-free, and based on mineral oil, which doesn’t have either linoleic or oleic acid in it and is relatively neutral from an acne perspective. So I abandoned my DIY cleansing balm for a while.

And then my cleansing oil got reformulated. And now contains shea butter and high-oleic oils. Argh. I thought about trying another commercial cleansing oil, but the one I found that didn’t cost an arm and a leg, was fragrance-free, and based on a high-linoleic oil just didn’t thrill me. And it wasn’t exactly cheap for the amount you got anyway.

So back to my DIY. I’ve updated the recipe a bit. I’ve started to think that maybe all butters and hard oils will eventually clog my skin, and at the very least contribute to a balm feeling difficult to cleanse off my skin. So I put together a recipe with just liquid oil and a complete emulsifying wax. Since a complete emulsifying wax can emulsify a lotion on its own, I figured it would be a shortcut to an emulsifying balm. Sadly, while it did emulsify, it didn’t rinse cleanly without using a flannel. Now, I love my flannels, but some days I just don’t want to be fussed. So I popped in a little more polysorbate and it rinses cleanly with warm water.

Here’s my updated recipe:

Butter-Free Emulsifying Cleansing Balm

(makes 112 g, which fits in a 4-oz. jar)

20g emulsifying wax

30g jojoba oil

50g grapeseed oil

10g Polysorbate-20

2g Vitamin E liquid

Melt the emulsifying wax and liquid oils together and stir thoroughly. Add the PS-20 and Vitamin E and stir until they melt in. Pour into a sanitized jar. Allow to cool. To use, scoop an almond-sized blob into your hands and apply it to your face. It should melt into an oil from the heat of your hands. Then, add a little warm water to your oily hands and rub them together until the balm emulsifies into a milky consistency. Use this milk to emulsify the oil on your face and then rinse with water or remove with a damp flannel. I usually follow this with a second cleanse with a water-based cleanser.