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!

Tuesday Tasting: Tea Sparrow October 2019 Tea Box

NB: Tea Sparrow sent me their October box for free in exchange for posting a tasting. All thoughts are my own. Links are not affiliate links.

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This week, I’m sharing a bit of a different tasting. While I generally drink unflavored pure teas and often taste my teas gong fu style, I am a firm believer in evaluating teas on their own terms rather than trying to shoe-horn different teas into gongfucha. I was recently contacted by Tea Sparrow, a company that sells subscription tea boxes. Most of their teas are flavored, but everything is organic and natural and they use biodegradable packaging, so I was intrigued to try. Plus, I know plenty of my readers are not necessarily solely interested in drinking fussy pure teas and might appreciate knowing about some good flavored teas. They sent me their October box, which included two caffeine-free herbal teas, a flavored green tea, and a flavored black tea, so I thought I would do my tasting using their brewing parameters.

But of course, this isn’t a review; this is a tasting. So I still made sure to check aroma and look of the “leaf” at various points during the brewing. And I made a point to really roll the flavors around in my mouth, the way I would with any other tea. Let’s see how the October teas do with a full tea tasting.

Pina Colada Green Tea

I will admit, when I saw this tea, my first thought was

Anyone who reads this blog knows that not only am I not usually a fan of flavored teas, but “dessert-y” type flavors like this are at the bottom of my list of likes (top of my list of dislikes?). But this is a tasting, not a review, so here we go.

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Right off, I could smell the coconut through the package, and it had an almost sunscreen-y aroma, but as soon as I opened it and poured it out into a warmed teapot, the scent became this rich, very true coconut aroma. It’s actually a very warm scent, which is odd for what I thought would be a summery tea. The dry green tea is medium olive-ish green and has moderately small, straight and flat leaves. It almost looks like a Japanese green tea (or a Chinese green processed like a Japanese tea?). There are also pieces of sugared pineapple and flakes of toasted coconut. I tasted one of the pineapple pieces and it’s sweet and has taken on the coconut flavor.

I first steeped this tea using one tablespoon, which was 4.8g, in a 250-ml glass teapot with 180 F water for two minutes, as per the instructions. The wet leaf had an almost savory aroma and the liquor was pale gold with a light coconut aroma. The dominant flavor was green tea, with noticeable umami and a lightly astringent finish. The coconut was an undertone to the flavor, with no noticeable sweetness and a surprisingly warm flavor.

Out of curiosity, I took the same leaves and cold-brewed them for three hours. The cold-brewed liquor was buttery and fragrant with a more pronounced fruity flavor.

Organic Vanilla Mint Rooibos

They are not kidding when they say this tea is “peppermint forward.” Again, I could smell the peppermint through the package. The dry leaf is an obvious blend of rooibos and dried peppermint leaf. The dry leaf smells strongly of peppermint, but the addition of vanilla and rooibos adds a rich depth that reminded me of a York peppermint patty. In my notes, I put a parenthetical that it “clears your sinuses.”

I used one tablespoon, which was 4.4g, in a 12-oz. mug with boiling water for five minutes. The liquor is a deep reddish brown and has a distinct aroma of each individual component, rather than blasting your sinuses with menthol like the wet and dry leaf. Peppermint is still the strongest flavor and it is a menthol-y peppermint, not a green peppermint flavor. Rooibos is the second most prominent with a rich woody flavor and the vanilla is subtle and reads as chocolate to my tastebuds, without that weird artificial vanilla flavor that happens with vanilla-flavored teas.

Organic Crimson Currants

This was the first tea I tried from the box, the day it came, as my evening cup. I like to unwind with a warm beverage after I put Elliot to bed, and I get tired of lavender-chamomile. This is a blend of dried fruit, rosehips (which are also a fruit), rooibos, and lemongrass. You can see all the components in the dry “leaf.”

I steeped one tablespoon, which was 6.5g, in 250 ml of boiling water for five minutes. The liquor is a deep crimson color and has an almost thick look to it as it pours. It has the same fruity aroma as the dry leaf. I made a note that it looks like stage blood (corn syrup and red food coloring)! The first flavor that hits you is tart, probably from the rosehips and hibiscus. It’s a thicker tartness than hibiscus usually gives, but without the sickly, almost tomato-y flavor I sometimes get from rosehips. It has a syrupy mouthfeel but no actual sweet favor. There is a little bit of lemon-candy flavor from the lemongrass. The berries are very subtle and I didn’t taste any rooibos from this at all. My final note is that “this tea is what ‘Red Zinger’ wants to be.”

Organic Masala Chai

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This, I tasted both plain and with milk and honey, since masala chai is actually a drink made with tea, not just a tea, so the traditional drink involves dairy and sweetener. The dry leaf shows a lot of whole spices like clove and cardamom among the very typical-looking Indian tea leaves. I can definitely smell the cinnamon flavoring, as it had strong, sweet cinnamon scent, like Ceylon cinnamon, but the ginger is also present as a base note to the dry leaf aroma.

To start off, I brewed one tablespoon, which was 5.9g, in 250 ml of boiling water for five minutes. The liquor “smells like Christmas,” according to my notes. There is a strong cinnamon aroma. Interestingly enough, the flavor is not overly cinnamon-y. The ginger comes through nicely and I get a little of the cardamom. It has a spicy finish, but the dominant flavor is from the Assam, with a big malt flavor, currant notes, and not too much tannin.

Adding honey to it brought out the cinnamon, and milk brings out an almost chocolatey quality. I also re-steeped this with boiling water for five minutes, giving it a little stir, and found that the ginger and cardamom were more pronounced, even when I added honey.

So there are my tastings of the four teas that came in the Tea Sparrow October 2019 box. And if you like flavored teas and are interested in trying a box, or buying any of these teas on their web store, you can use the code “TeaLeavesandTweed” on their site for a 20% discount on your first order or your first month of the subscription.

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.

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.

The Power of a Cup of Tea

Boyfriend is my rock, my support, the one who can calm me down no matter what. But even he needs his helpers. He’s the one who reminds me that I haven’t eaten for a while and seem like maybe I need a snack, or that I need some more sleep, or maybe I should get up and go outside for a while to recharge. And his number one go-to remedy?

“Sweetie, do you want me to make you a cup of tea?”

If it’s first thing in the morning and there’s no food in the house for breakfast because it’s shopping day, he offers me a cup of tea first. If it’s a work morning and I’m lounging in bed rather than face another day at the office, he makes me a cup of tea. He always makes sure to put enough water in the kettle when he boils it to make coffee, so I don’t have to wait as long for my tea. And if I’m having trouble falling asleep or sad or cranky or just generally stressed, he always first offers to make me a cup of herbal tea.

And that tea has so much more power than the leaves and water in it. Sure, some teas have medicinal properties. The caffeine can be a pick-me-up. The herbs can be soothing or calming or sedating. The water is hydrating, which can perk me up sometimes. But there is so much more to that offer of a cup of tea, and the tea itself.

The warmth of tea is part of the experience. I almost never drink tea iced unless it’s very very hot and I’m in the mood for a cold beverage. Hot tea is not the same. Hot tea is comforting from the moment you wrap your hands around the warm mug and inhale the scent of the tea. It sounds cliched, but it is a bit like a hug.

And tea takes time to make. You have to fill the kettle, and wait for it to boil. If I’m having a cup of proper tea, you need to measure the tea leaves into the strainer, time the steep, and remove the leaves. Tea isn’t something that Boyfriend drinks himself unless he’s sick, so it means something that he’s willing to drop what he’s doing and take the time out to make me a cup of tea. And it almost always makes me feel better.

The other week, I had gotten in touch with my inner flapper and overindulged in cocktails and champagne at a party the night before. I woke up after staying with a friend, unable to even look at food (my own lovely homemade scones, with just a touch of lemon), but I knew I could handle a cup of tea. Moroccan mint with a dab of honey soothed my stomach and perked me up enough to nibble on half a scone and make the drive home. Once there, I curled up on the couch with more tea (ginger), and some heartier food (curry, oddly enough). Thus fortified, I catnapped through the day to recover. Something about the warm tea made it easier to sip than a glass of cold water.

So I suppose the point is, consider tea. And if you have a day when you feel down or sick or sad, make yourself a cup of tea. Or if you have a loved one who is down or sick or sad, make them a cup of tea. It will help.

Cottage Herbalism

I don’t remember how I first learned about herbs and herbal remedies. Probably my mother made a tea of some sort. But at some point I developed an affinity for herbalism. I’ve taken a few classes, but am mostly a self-study, and at this point in my life, have settled into a kind of casual, cottage herbalism, as I like to call it. A kind of timeless healing that eschews potent herbs or attempts to break in and heal aggressively in favor of gentle remedies that supplement a healthy lifestyle and modern medicine when needed.

My favorite remedies are herbal teas. I often buy blends from Traditional Medicinals, although I dislike that they use stevia and liquorice to flavor many of their blends, so I also love the single-herb tea bags from Celebration Herbals and Alvita. I find that using simples (single herbs) to start is good to make sure you don’t have any adverse reactions. And a basic herbal book is nice to keep track of any obscure contraindications, like avoiding parsley and rosemary in medicinal quantities during pregnancy.

But my herbalism is relaxing and soothing. It is a cup of chamomile-lavender tea before bed to soothe strained nerves. It’s a brew of ginger root for an upset stomach or red clover, echinacea, honey, and lemon for a cold. I once developed a really nasty, flat-on-my-back-on-the-couch cold the day before an audition that I really, really wanted to go to. I drank echinacea, honey, and lemon tea 4-5 times that day and was easily well enough to audition.

From there, I occasionally turn to tinctures and extracts when I need a bit more support. My favorite company right now is called Urban Moonshine. They primarily make delicious herbal bitters, which I take to help digestion sometimes. They’re also tasty just added to a glass of sparkling water. But their tonics stand out to me. They keep their recipes simple and don’t use very potent herbs, but their Joy Tonic, a blend of linden, rose, and motherwort, helps balance me during the high stress times of my life.

I used to make some simple tinctures of my own, but I’ve fallen out of the habit. It’s not difficult, and you can use either fresh or dried herbs. The important part is to use a lot of herb, steep it for at least a month, and shake it often. A few years back, I made a set of tinctures that served most of my needs. Hypericum (St. John’s Wort) for low times, Viburnum (Crampbark) for PMS, and Leonurus (Motherwort) for stress. While I’ve largely replaced these with the Joy Tonic (and a little ginger tea for cramps), they served me well for a long time.

And, of course, I have my own Gardener’s Herbal Tea blend, which I haven’t drunk as faithfully, but may end up back in my morning routine. The nettles will help calm my sinuses, and the other herbs will support a rather frayed system from the stress of preparing for my show’s opening weekend.

Do any of you have favorite gentle herbal remedies? Anyone experiment with casual herbalism, rather than trying to be very medicinal about things?

Gardener’s Herbal Tea

Yesterday it was lovely and grey with a dramatic cloudy sky. After going out for lunch, I decided to stop off at my favorite little herb shop to get provisions and then went home to make up a new batch of my personal herbal tea blend, which I like to call gardener’s herbal tea.

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It’s made up of nettles, oat straw, red raspberry leaf, and rose hips, all of which could be grown in the garden, although I purchase mine these days. One of these days, I’ll have my own little yard and garden and perhaps will be able to grow the herbs myself. It makes a nice cup of morning tea. I brew it for an hour in the mornings to really get the essence out of the herbs. The nettles give it body, while the raspberry leaf offers tannin, the oatstraw mellows the cup, and the rose hips give it a bright tart note that really brings the flavors together.

I like to start the day with an herbal cup when I know I shall be drinking cup after cup of caffeinated tea at work. The herbs are supporting to the body in general, and I find my skin looks clearer and my demeanor is brighter. Nettles are packed full of good minerals, although they do taste a bit like strong spinach. Oat straw is supposed to be mellowing and calming. Rose hips are a great source of vitamin C, and red raspberry leaf is good in general for women’s concerns.

Each morning, while Boyfriend showers, I go down to boil a kettle and start my tea. I use my tea cozy to keep the brew warm while I then start my day, shower, dress, and make breakfast. It’s usually been almost an hour before I sit down to my pot of tea. It looks lovely, the rose hips tinting it a litle rose color. I sit and sip my tea and then am ready to start my day properly.

To mix the tea, I gather my herbs. I eyeball the mix by volume, using probably an ounce or two each of nettles, oat straw, and raspberry leaf, and then pouring the rose hips, about four ounces, on top. I can either shake them up in the jar to mix, or mix it up in a bowl. I use about a quarter cup of herb for a pot of tea. I hope you will give my herb blend a try!