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!

A New Kind of Herbalism

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve long had an interest in traditional, herbal-based remedies. While I certainly go to the doctor when I’m very sick, for more minor complaints, I often try an herbal remedy before anything else. For example, when my recent terrible sore throat came back negative for strep, I turned to herbal remedies to soothe and heal it in the absence of any allopathic intervention. I also love to use herbal and DIY remedies for skin care, though I’ve moved a bit away from that since discovering that many homemade skin care products are not exactly what my skin needs. But since discovering Asian beauty and skin care products, I’ve gotten more into the traditional healing side of Asian skin care and health.

Specifically, I’ve discovered the joy of Hanbang products. Hanbang is Korean traditional medicine. It is very similar to Chinese traditional medicine, although it does have a distinct lineage. One of the most common practices is the use of teas, particularly those based around ginseng and other prized roots. Ginseng, ginger, licorice, Korean angelica, and Solomon’s seal are some of the favored roots in Hanbang teas, as well as remedies such as jujube, persimmon, Schizandra, and citron teas. I actually had a coworker offer me a spoonful of Korean citron marmalade to make a cup of citron honey tea when I was feeling unwell. The bitterness of the citron peel mixes well with the tart citrus taste and sweet honey. I find it far superior to regular lemon-and-honey tea, honestly.

Additionally, I like to use herbal infusions and teas as a way to support healthy body function. I was drinking at least two cups a day of spearmint infusion for the last month, as it is supposed to help balance hormones and improve both hormonal mood swings and hormonal skin issues. As hormonal acne on my chin is the one condition that resists my routine’s improving influence, I thought it was worth a try. Now, armed with some research about traditional Asian medicines, I’ve added to my morning brew. I add ginger to help with circulation, as the temperature in my office hovers somewhere between bone-chilling and simply fingertip-numbing. Goji berries add an interesting flavor, as well as a host of nutrients. I cannot bring myself to eat goji berries, but adding them to tea seems a reasonable way to reap their benefits. Finally, dong quai, which is known as “female ginseng” or “the Empress of herbs” in traditional Chinese medicine, helps support the hormone-balancing action of the spearmint. Unfortunately, it also has a strong flavor reminiscent of celery and may be better suited to an herbal broth than a tea. I do find that this upgraded blend is more invigorating in the morning than spearmint alone, though I have not used it long enough to determine any other benefits.

I’m excited to have found new remedies to bring into my herbal cabinet and look forward to more experimentation. Please share any favorite herbal remedies you might have!