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Herbal Teas

( Originally Published 1933 )

There is a story that Confucius, in order to induce the Chinese to boil their drinking water, invented the tea made from the leaves of the Thea bohea or Thea viridis. Whatever the origin of the practice, all drinks made from brewing fragrant leaves or flowers in hot water are known as teas.

One of the pleasures of a herb garden is the harvest of leaves and flowers which can be infused into such teas. Originating teas by using new combinations of leaves and blossoms is a field open to a modern Confucius; and to assist the would-be conjurer of fragrant drinks, I am mentioning a few of the plants which, in the past, have been steeped in hot water to metamorphose an otherwise dull and tepid drink into one of jewel-like colors and poetic fragrances.

At present most of us cannot differentiate between black and green teas, nor do we know them by name. When we are asked, "Do you wish India or China tea, Oolong, White Rose, or Jasmine," as likely as not we mention a name we know rather than a flavor we prefer.

Herb teas are healthful, delightful to the senses, and will increase our scale of appreciation, for when we imbibe drinks of new ingredients, we are more conscious of the variations in flavors and fragrances than when taking the habitual China tea, cocoa, or coffee every morning upon arising.

When we see what subtle means the Chinese employ to flavor their teas, we realize how sensitive they must be to shadings in taste and smell. They flavor certain of their teas with jasmine and others with orange blossoms, or the petals of roses, or peonies. We, too, can put the petals of the damask or Provence roses in with the leaves of sage, bee balm, or costmary for a day or two to flavor them and then sift them out, or if we live in the South, mix jasmine flowers or orange blossoms in with the dried leaves of the herbs to flavor our homemade teas, as the Chinese do in their more intricate and expert way.

Robert Fortune, who wrote a book about his visit to the tea districts of China, says that black or green teas can be made from the same plants and that it is the method of drying and not the plant which makes the difference. The black teas are left to lie on the flat bamboo trays much longer than the green ones and undergo "a species of heating or fermentation" during their exposure to the air which turns them black, while the green teas are dried off quickly and do not ferment and consequently keep their color. Black teas are supposed to be more healthful than the green ones. The leaves for the herb teas are dried as quickly as possible indoors, and, like the green teas of China, they are not permitted to ferment.

People all over the world from the most primitive to the highest stages of civilization have steeped herbs in hot water. Infusions of sage leaves have been given for colds, chamomile flowers or peppermint leaves for indigestion, and balm to bring out perspiration, and countless others for their soothing or stimulating qualities. At one end of the scale are the American Indians, who drink herbs steeped in hot water as medicine, and in the middle are the Europeans from south to north who drink teas for health as well as pleasure, while at the furthermost peak of civilization are the Chinese who, before the Japanese had made a religious rite of drinking tea, had laid the foundation for the tea ceremony of the latter country.

Chinese teas played a dramatic rôle in American history, because the tax on the fragrant leaves, without the consent of the people, was the last straw which precipitated the War of Independence with Great Britain. Since it was politically expedient to refrain from drinking the China teas, a propaganda against their healthfulness was promulgated as an added inducement to keep the people from "bootlegging" tea when their patriotism was not sufficiently strong to prevent their indulging in the fashionable drink of the day. An article in the Virginia Gazette, Williamsburg, Virginia, January 13, 1774, signed by Philo-Aletheias, is an amusing example of the lengths to which an ardent propagandist can go. It begins as follows :

Can posterity believe that the constitutional liberties of North America were on the Point of being given up for Tea? Is this exotic Plant necessary to Life? . . . But if we must through Custom have some warm Tea once or twice a day, why may we not exchange this slow poison which not only destroys our Constitutions but endangers our Liberties and drains our Country of so many thousands of Pounds a Year for Teas of our own American Plants, many of which may be found pleasant to the taste, and very salutary, according to our various constitutions . . . Here permit me to propose a list of several kinds of Teas with a hint of their Uses; any of which would be more pleasant than Bohea, etc., provided we used them as long.

Then follow seventeen different kinds of teas such as "sassafras root sliced thin and dried with raspings of lignum vitae" and the following :

Sweet marjoram and a little mint; mother of thyme, a little hyssop; sage and balm leaves, joined with a little lemon juice; rosemary and lavender; a very few small twigs of White Oak well dried in the Sun with two leaves and a Half of Sweet Myrtle; Clover with a Little Chamomile; Twigs of Black Cur-rant Bushes; Red Rose Bush leaves and Cinquefoil; Mistletoe and English Wild Valerian; Pine Buds and Lesser Valerian; Ground Ivy with a little Lavender Cotton or Roman Worm-wood, or Southernwood (sounds quite horribly bitter) ; Straw-berry Leaves and the Leaves of Sweet Briar, or Dog's Rose; Golden Rod and Betony, drunk with Honey; Twigs of liquid Amber Tree (commonly called Sweet Gum) with or without the flowers of Elder; Peppermint and Yarrow.

All these have their medicinal values appended, to which is added a footnote:

Every sort of tea is rendered disagreeable by being too strong.

The colonial housewife made drinks from the herbs in her garden, and undoubtedly long before the Revolution had found substitutes for the expensive imported teas. Whenever she came upon a plant with fragrant leaves, she would probably ask a trapper, or perhaps a squaw, whether the bush was poisonous, and if she found it was innocuous would steep the leaves in hot water to concoct an aromatic drink. Although these drinks antedated the Revolution, many of them were called "Liberty Teas."

Besides the ones mentioned by Philo-Aletheias, the following were used: the scented leaves of spice bush, Benzoin aestivale; of wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens; bee balm, Monarda didyma; ambrosia, Chenopodium ambrosoides; and sweet fern, Myrica asplenifolium. The leaves of march tea, Ledum palustre, and of Labrador tea, Ledum groenlandicum, are said to be less palatable; while the dried leaves of a variety of goldenrod called Solidago odorata are said to make a pleasant tea, as are the leaves of New Jersey tea, Ceanothus americanus, and those of raspberry bushes. The leaves of the American pennyroyal, Hedeoma pulegioides, made "grateful beverages" we are told, sweetened with honey, molasses, or sugar. The Swedish traveler, Peter Kalm, says he noticed that people took an infusion of this for colds and pains in the head.

In the South, sassafras tea, made from the bark of the root, as a substitute for tea, was a favorite drink during the Civil War, and the extract from the root now furnishes the flavoring for root beer. During another war, a drink was made from the flowering tops of encenilla or chaparral, Croton corymbosus. In western Texas this was much liked by the Mexicans and Indians as well as the Negro United States soldiers, who are said to have preferred it to coffee.

Okakura Kakuza, in his "Book of the Tea," says:

Like art, Tea has its periods and its schools, its evolution may be roughly divided into three main stages; The Boiled Tea, The Whipped Tea and The Steeped Tea. We moderns belong to the last school. These several methods of appreciating the beverage are indicative of the spirit of the age in which they prevailed.

When teas are made from herbs which give readily of their essence, the ceremony is exactly like that which accompanies the preparation of China tea. The leaves are portioned out into a porcelain pot, boiling water is poured over them, and they are allowed to steep for a few minutes. The liquid is then strained off into another porcelain pot which has been previously heated. Certain of the herbs, however, do not yield quickly of their savor and have to be boiled in the water for a few minutes. All herb teas, except peppermint and spearmint, are improved when flavored with sugar and lemon. To serve them they should be poured boiling hot into translucent cups, already flavored with the right amount of sugar and with a thin slice of lemon floating on the amber or jade-colored liquid to mingle its fruity scent with the spicy fragrance of the teas. Naturally no milk is added to cloud their color or flatten their taste. The color of green tea does not indicate its strength. The herb teas are green teas and never become as dark as the black teas, but always maintain a light green or pale gold color.

Upon trial I found the dried leaves of the following herbs yielded pleasant teas. The young leaves of costmary, Chrysanthemum balsamita, make a tea which when strong is very bitter, but when weak and flavored with sugar and lemon is good. It does not have to be steeped long. A good handful of the leaves of balm, Melissa citriodora, to a cup should be boiled in water to bring out the flavor. The tea is good but mild in taste, at any rate from plants grown in our climate. The leaves of wild bergamot, Monarda fistulosa, have to be boiled in the water too, and the tea has an aromatic and delightful taste, whereas the tea of Monarda citriodora has a pleasant peppery taste. Although a large pinch of leaves is taken of Mentha citrata for one cup, the tea does not have much flavor. The leaves of Salvia officinalis when steeped in hot water have a warm, pleasant flavor. Those of gas plant, Dictamnus fraxinella, taste of lemon, mint, fresh greens, and a little bitter. The leaves and flowering tops of hyssop are also brewed into teas. The flowering tops of peppermint and spearmint are stimulating and refreshing. I like a cup of mint tea in the middle of the afternoon with a few gingersnaps, as I rest between hours at the typewriter.

Teas of jasmine, linden, and chamomile flowers and of the leaves of sage and peppermint can be bought, but they are not as fragrant as the ones cured and grown in one's own garden.

A tea is made from the flowers of the linden tree called tilleul in French, and tastes somewhat as the blossoms smell. In July all along the roads of France, wherever the lindens are growing, one sees ladders placed against the trees for gathering the flowers. One summer in Tours I saw the gardener cut down branches of the trees and bring them into the convent where a group of little children under the supervision of a nun picked off the flowers, while all of them were singing a song for this special occasion.

In France, where the people have made a fine art of living perhaps second only to the Chinese, and know how to derive the utmost pleasure from each of their five senses, it is the custom to partake of a herb tea before retiring. These teas are said to insure sweet dreams and a quiet sleep, and how could it be otherwise when the last waking sensations are of a warm golden liquid exhaling a delicious aroma.

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