“When I started, we didn’t sell herbals or flavored teas,” says Sebastian Beckwith, who founded In Pursuit of Tea in 1999. In less than a year, the fine tea purveyor offered everything from single-origin chamomile to custom herbal blends featuring indigenous Bhutanese mistletoe.
While these beverages are marketed frequently as “herbal tea,” the term is a misnomer. White, green, oolong, black or pu’er teas come from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, which has caffeine. Herbal teas, also known as tisanes, steep parts of other plants in water to produce a flavored, hot drink, and most are caffeine-free.
Meg Tartasky, chief of sales and operations for MEM Tea Imports in Massachusetts, has observed an uptick in tisane consumption since the beginning of the pandemic.
“Folks are flocking to it for a multitude of reasons, looking for alternatives to caffeine, soda and wine, or potential medicinal properties,” she says.
Tartasky believes there are emotional benefits to tisanes, too.
“Many of us are languishing in feelings of doubt, loss and desperation, or any combination of all three these days,” she says. “From that chaos arises a need for stability, control or the establishment of rituals that bring us joy and ground us… Without sounding too cliché, enjoying a cup of tea is a warm hug you can give yourself.”
Tisanes are ancient. Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese and Native Americans made drinks from plants both for pleasure or as natural remedies. Today, the FDA deems most herbal teas safe, but it doesn’t approve or regulate medicinal uses or health claims.
When shopping for tisanes, look for reputable purveyors and buy quality or organic products when possible. It’s easy to steep tisanes. Unlike green tea, which requires a specific water temperature and brewing time to avoid astringent overextraction, you can just add boiling water and let sit for 4–5 minutes.
To determine which infusion is best for your cup, consider five main categories of tisanes: flowers; roots; fungi and fruits; and herbs, leaves, shrubs and trees.
These dried flowers are plucked from daisy-like plants in the Asteraceae family, whether German (Chamomilla recutita) or Roman (Chamaemelum nobile). Dating to ancient Egypt, Chamomile is one of the oldest and most used plants in the world. It tastes of apple, fig and honey. Health claims are said to include mildly sedative and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as antioxidants.
Also known as sour, sorrel and roselle, tea made from the dried calyx (an edible pod) of a flower (Hibiscus sabdariffa) is grown in parts of continental Africa and tropical regions worldwide. Hibiscus tisanes taste sweet and tangy, like tart cranberry, with a deep red hue. It’s an especially popular drink in Jamaica during the December holiday season. It’s said to offer Vitamin C and antioxidants, and promotes lower blood pressure and liver health.
The dried flowers of Chrysanthemum morifolium or Chrysanthemum indicum, species common to Asia, have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). It tastes floral, evocative of chamomile with citrus. Tisanes of chrysanthemum are believed to be rich in antioxidants and can lower blood pressure. It’s even used as a hangover remedy.
Also called “cone flowers,” echinacea is part of the daisy family. It comprises several species of flowering plants native to North America, but only three are consumed in teas and tisanes. Native American tribes infused both the root and flower and used the drink as a medicinal remedy. It tastes floral and sweet with a tingling effect, and it’s often blended with other herbs. Some believe it reduces inflammation and improves immunity.
Made with dried or fresh roots of a flowering plant (Zingiber officinale) native to tropical Asia, ginger tisanes taste piquant and slightly sweet. The sharp spice comes from a chemical compound, gingerol. Health claims are said to include anti-inflammation and improved digestion.
Part of the Zingiberaceae family and related to ginger, this root hails from the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. It tastes warm, earthy, slightly bitter and peppery, and has many culinary applications. Some believe it supports liver function and offers anti-inflammatory properties and antioxidants.
Ginseng is harvested in North America (Panax quinquefolius) and Asia (Panax ginseng). One of the oldest ingredients in TCM, references to its use dates to a text in 196 AD. This forest perennial grows slowly, and pressure from U.S. foragers has landed the plant on the extinction watch list. It tastes bitter, sharp and earthy. It’s believed to boost energy, fight inflammation and cardiovascular disease, and have antioxidants and cellular protection properties.
Fungi and Fruits
Known as “the mushroom of immortality,” this fungus (Ganoderma lucidum) has been a staple of Chinese medicine for 2,000 years. It tastes earthy with a hint of bitterness. Scientists are researching its potential for cancer care and immunity health, and it’s said to be rich in Vitamin D and B-complex vitamins, minerals like potassium and calcium, as well as antioxidants.
These plump red fruits come from below petals on rose plants are harvested typically from wild species (Rosa canina and Rosa rugosa). They grow across Asia, Europe and North Africa, and taste delicate and floral, with a sweet-tart kick similar to hibiscus. They are said to offer antioxidants and provide anti-inflammatory and immunity-boosting properties.
The flower of Sambucus Canadensis, a plant native to North America, produces the black elderberries found in syrups and lozenges. Hippocrates referred to elderberry as his “medicine chest,” and modern-day drinkers are drawn to its immunity-boosting Vitamin C. It’s full-bodied and juicy with honeydew melon, flowers and anise notes.
Herbs, Leaves, Shrubs and Trees
The dried leaves or stalks of a tropical perennial grass (Cymbopogon) native to Asia is often used in food and beverages as well as citronella candles. It has a pungent, herbaceous aroma with lemon and floral notes. Purported health claims include that it lowers blood pressure, aids in digestion and contains antioxidants.
Members of the mint family have long legacies in Europe and the Middle East. Archaeologists discovered sprigs in Egyptian tombs. These aromatic herbs flavor sweets, salads, drinks and gum. High levels of menthol in both peppermint and spearmint provide a cooling sensation. It’s said to contain Vitamin C, aids in digestion and can help decongestion.
This tea is made from the needles of a wild South African bush indigenous to the Cederberg Mountains, the Aspalathus linearis shrub. While red Rooibos is more widely available in the U.S., there are also green Rooibos teas and tisanes. The red version tastes of currants, vanilla, caramel and cedar, and is said to be rich in Vitamin C and antioxidants.
Found in Asia, Europe and North America, the pale yellow flowers, bark and heart-shaped leaves of linden trees (Tilia genus) have long been used as a calming tonic. Its strong taste is akin to a woodsier chamomile. Benefits are said to include sleep aid, and some say it has immunity-boosting and digestive benefits.
Native to South America, this woody shrub (Aloysia citrodora) is cultivated around the world for its fragrant leaves. It tastes lemony fresh and is said to contain antioxidants and fight inflammation.