A version of this post was originally published in the Spirit of Change Magazine on May 24, 2011 and is excerpted from Rosemary Gladstar’s The Science & Art of Herbalism course.
Do you dream of exquisite tasting “just for pleasure” teas? Blends that add sparkle to one’s mornings, or a lift at the end of the day? As the years go by, I find that I’m attracted to herbs less in their medicinal forms such as tinctures, pills and such, and more to those aspects that focus on life, health, and vitality: herbs in the garden, as skin care, as everyday tea and food, as teachers and friends, and as a part of life to simply enjoy. Perhaps this refocusing is my own renegade reaction to the popular trend of viewing herbs solely as medicine, something one takes when one is sick. This is an extremely limited view of all that herbs are and do and will limit your understanding of the natural healing power of plants.
Herbalism is not merely a replacement for modern allopathic medicine, but offers an entirely different system of healing. When one tries to superimpose herbalism over the Western allopathic system of healing, herbalism loses much of its potency. In truth, there is little separation between health and vitality or sickness, or between medicine and food. That is, perhaps, where herbs are strongest, their potency most revealed, their natural healing most profound — in the daily use of herbs as food and as beverage tea for health and wellbeing. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is certainly true of herbal medicine and other forms of holistic healing.
And such powerful medicine lies in these herbal brews — these teas we drink every day because they taste good and smell wonderful and uplift the spirits. Have you ever had a cup of fresh-brewed Lemon Verbena, Rosehips plucked from the vine, Holy Basil, Lemon Balm, or Hibiscus flowers? Have you ever dug the Sassafras root, barked the spring sap flowing Birch or the bitter, fragrant Wild Cherry? Have you ever sipped on the pungent Artemisia picked from the wild sea coast, or experienced the lemon-like flavor of the noble Pine or fragrant Fir gathered from the mountains? Beverage blends are teas we brew to satisfy a deeper thirst, a longing of the soul.
Have you thought deeply about that beverage tea you’re drinking? Those herbs are grown from the heart of the Mother; they are gifts that capture memories, create moods, evoke the exotic or carry to the heart what’s familiar and homey. Those herbs are nourished by seasons and cycles of many moon risings, sunsets, lightning bolts and storms. Who knows what divine mystery is implanted in the memory code of that plant? Into the teapot it goes, stirred with a touch of your magic, brewed with divine water. Now, that’s my kind of medicine.
Beverage teas can have a specific purpose such as a relaxing or romantic blend to begin and end the day, or a stimulating blend to drink before a hot date, or a magical one for afterwards. Most herbal blends are nutritious and can serve as preventative medicine, but they are created for taste, fragrance, mood, and enjoyment rather than with a particular medicinal intention. It is important that your beverage blends taste delicious, fresh, and unique. Fresh herbs are always best.
Though tea bags may be excellent for convenience, such as when traveling or dining out, they are generally never as good as fresh herb blends. The quality of herbs used in tea bags is usually of poorer quality. Herbs must be completely shredded to fit into the tea bag. Air destroys the vital properties of the plants. To mask the sometimes stale taste of the herbs, a popular practice is to mix the herbs with natural and unnatural flavoring oils. Some of these flavoring oils (for example, most of the Cinnamon oil used to flavor tea) are synthetic. Many of the tea bags sold commercially are sealed with polyvinyl chloride (PVC). This toxin is released by heat; a little extra unwanted additive in your herbal tea. When buying tea bags, purchase those that are sealed the old fashioned way — with a staple. Check the quality of the herbs and read the ingredient list. If it says ‘natural and unnatural flavors,’ then synthetic flavoring, which can be quite toxic, has been added.
Most pre-packaged tea blends are made with similar ingredients. But you can be so much more creative! Try new flavors. Experiment with flowers, culinary herbs, with aroma and color.
Your tea blends should excite you and your friends into drinking them with their flavor combination, visual appeal and fragrance! These are the three cornerstones of a good herbal beverage blend.
Whenever possible, use fresh herbs. Even the best quality dry herb will taste better when fresh. It will lose some of its zestiness. My father used to put the large pot on the stove, fill it with water, and when the water was boiling vigorously, he’d hurry out to the garden to pick the corn. That was freshness! Try to capture that same wonderful, eccentric concern for freshness with your herb teas.
I always chuckle when folks mention they have a great patch of fresh Mint growing, then ask me how to dry it so they can make tea. People often associate herbs with dried plant material, but herbs are dried primarily for convenience, not because of flavor or quality. A good rule of thumb is to always use your herbs fresh. The exceptions to this rule are few and far between and do not concern any of the herbs you would be using in beverage teas.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with unusual and unfamiliar herbs for your beverage teas. Some of the best flavors are combinations of unusual groupings of herbs. Have you tried Basil, Calendula, Rose, Sage, Butterfly Pea Flower, Thyme? When black and green Oriental teas were gaining much popularity throughout England and Europe, Sage was imported in vast amounts to China as their most popular tea. If you’re a Mint lover, there are infinite varieties of flavors available. Try Pineapple Mint, Licorice Mint, Apple Mint and Chocolate Mint. And don’t forget flavors like Sassafras, Birch Bark and Sarsaparilla for root beer-like blends; herbs like Stevia (just a pinch) to sweeten your blends; and herbs like the beautiful blue Butterfly Pea Flower and ruby red Hibiscus blossoms to add color and vibrancy to your tea blends.
How To Create Beverage Teas
Unlike the blending of medicinal formulas where accuracy and intention are required, beverage teas can be created on a whim. Ingredients can be added or substituted depending upon what you have on hand.
Here is a list of guidelines to help you:
- Know the flavor and properties of each of the herbs you are using.
- Start with an idea of what flavor or feeling you wish to evoke.
- Blend for beauty, the harmony of the flavors used, and pay attention to aroma.
- When your blend looks good and smells good, give it the all-important taste test.
- You will probably have to adjust the flavors at least once.
- You may wish to add some flowers just for color, some herbs for their scents, and some herbs, such as Chinese Star Anise, for texture.
- Keep a recipe book of your favorite blends. Believe me, you will not remember all of the ingredients that made that one tea so exceptional!
- Your special herb tea blends make great gifts and are always welcome when you’re visiting friends and family.
Proportion of Herbs to Water
Most herb books readily agree on proportions: 1 teaspoon of dried herb (or 2 tablespoons of fresh herb) to 1 cup of water. These proportions are totally arbitrary, however, because so much depends on the particular flavor and quality of the herb(s) being used. Use these proportions as a guideline only, but the final test is in the taste.
When a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio doesn’t work, discard the rules and adjust the flavors as your taste buds see fit. In truth, I don’t think I’ve ever used those exact proportions. Each herb lends itself to slightly different proportions and different brewing times. Be willing to experiment and adjust proportions until you find just the right amount. Your reward will be the perfect pot of tea.
How Long to Brew
Along with the quality and flavor of herbs, the length of time you brew the herbs will have a definite effect on the resulting flavor. You can ruin a perfectly good blend by steeping it too long, or by not steeping quite long enough.
- Flowers and leaves are generally steeped in water (water is poured over the herbs) and allowed to infuse for 10-30 minutes.
- Roots and barks and more woody plant parts are usually simmered at a low boil for 15-30 minutes as a decoction.
The longer you let the herb steep or simmer in the water, the stronger the resulting taste will be. If a light and mild blend is desired steep quickly, strain, and serve. If you wish a stronger flavor, let the herbs infuse or decoct for a longer period of time. For instance, Rosehips, though delicious, render a rather mild flavor. To get the full rich flavor and the vitamin C and bioflavonoid content of Rosehips, I usually pour boiling water over them and infuse for several hours or overnight.
How can you tell you’ve created that ‘extra special tea’, a winner?! I call it the ‘three cup tea test’; when you serve a cup and your friends or family ask for a second serving, and then, often in the garden, sipping slowly, enjoying a beautiful afternoon, they ask for a third cup. Three cups and you know you’ve got a winner!
For an extra-special ‘winning’ beverage blend, try this Blue Moon Tea! Feel free to adapt and adjust the recipe to your tastes.
Blue Moon Tea
- 1 part Milky Oats green and freshly harvested
- 1 part Lemon Balm
- 1 part Nettle
- 1 part Chocolate Mint or your favorite Mint
- 1 part Lemon Grass
- 1 part Butterfly Pea flowers
- Stevia just a pinch
Have you longed to feel confident practicing herbal home care—for yourself, your family, your community?
You will find a wealth of information contained within the lessons of Rosemary’s Science & Art of Herbalism home study course. This hands-on practical course is designed to introduce you to the world of herbs and herbalism!