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!