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Herbal Teas

When is a tea not a tea? When it's an herbal infusion, or tisane. Technically speaking, only a beverage made from the leaves of one plant, Camellia sinensis, can truly be called tea. If that's the case, what is an herbal tea?

Broadly speaking, all teas are herbal, since an herb is any plant, shrub, or tree capable of affecting our lives through its aroma, taste, flavor, or therapeutic use. True teas, made from Camellia sinensis, use the leaves and buds to create their brew. Herbal teas encompass a variety of plant parts, from leaves and flowers to roots and bark. Processed in much the same way as green tea, these plant parts are dried soon after harvesting to avoid any fermentation.

When you make a pot of herbal tea, follow the same basic rules you use for making tea: use clean utensils; start with cold, good-tasting water and heat it to the correct temperature; use the correct amount of tea and the correct brewing method; make sure you brew for the proper length of time; and serve your tea fresh. These rules are discussed in detail in the next chapter.

When you brew herbal tea, keep in mind that different plant parts require different brewing times. (Remember, because black, green, and oolong teas all use only the (eaves of one plant, the amount of tea required for each cup tends to be uniform. This is not true of herbal teas.)

As a rule, when you make an herbal tea with leaves, use 2 rounded teaspoons of fresh leaves or 2 teaspoons of dried leaves for 6 to 8 ounces of boiling water. Depending on your preference, steep the tea for 5 to 10 minutes. If you are using plant parts such as roots, stems, and bark, you’ll be making a decoction. In a decoction, instead of steeping or infusing the leaves, you simmer the coarse plant parts for up to 30 minutes to extract their flavors and components. (When a decoction is made for medicinal purposes, the tea is concentrated by reducing the liquid up to 30 percent.)

Speaking of decoctions, have you ever wondered what the difference is between an herb and a spice? It's not always clear, especially when it comes to tea.

Herbs tend to be more delicate and subtle in flavor and usually come from the leafy parts of the plant, while spices, known for their exotic, intense favors, come from the bark, roots, seeds, and fruits. When you make tea from a spice, decoction is the method most often used because the components are more difficult to release.

Today's market of commercially available herbal teas continues to grow as people seek alternative drinks. Like traditional tea, a particular herb can be a self-drinker, or it can be blended with other herbs to make a beverage that unites the flavors of them all. Tea companies are developing new herbal beverages by combining teas with natural juices or sparkling water to make drinks that go as well with meals as they do on the football field or golf course. (Herbal teas and juices are high in potassium, making them an ideal isotonic sports beverage.)

On the following pages, you’ll find some of today’s most popular herbs, with a brief description of their effects plus instructions on how to brew each one into a tea. (Caution: When brewing herbs that you've gathered, do not use roadside herbs, which may be coated with noxious car exhaust, or herbs that may have been sprayed with pesticide.) You'll also find recipes for herbal tea blends and beverages as well as herbal recipes to transform your home and bath. Soothing, stimulating aromatic herbs-they are all here.

BASIL (Ocimum basilicum varieties) may be one of the tastiest herbs in Italian cuisine, but its fragrant green leaves also make a soothing infusion to help calm an upset stomach and quell nausea. Its tea has a clovelike flavor with peppery, mintlike undertones. Use 1 tablespoon of the fresh leaves or 2 teaspoons dried in 6 to 8 ounces of boiling water. Steep for 10 minutes.

CATNIP (Nepeta cataria) is a mouser's delight, and its scalloped leaves produce a subtle, lemony, mintlike tea, which the British drank before China tea came to their isles. Belonging to the mint family, catnip, when infused into a tea, helps to settle upset stomachs and was a traditional cold and flu remedy. Use 1 tablespoon of the fresh leaves or 2 teaspoons dried in 6 to 8 ounces of boiling water. Steep for 10 minutes.

CHAMOMILE (Chamaemelum nobile, Roman or English chamomile; Matricaria recutita, German chamomile) makes a comforting herbal tea with a light, sweet, applelike taste. A popular herb, chamomile is used as a base for many commercially blended herbal tea mixes. An infusion of the daisylike flowers used for the tea relieves nausea and anxiety and, if taken before bedtime, promotes sleep. Use 1 tablespoon of the fresh flowers or 2 teaspoons dried in 6 to 8 ounces of boiling water. Steep for 3 to 4 minutes, or up to 30 minutes for its medicinal effects. If you are allergic to ragweed pollen, it's best to avoid chamomile, since they are related.

GINSENG (Panax quinquefolius, American ginseng; P. ginseng, Korean or Chinese ginseng) has been proclaimed an aphrodisiac and cure-all for many human ailments. Its root often resembles the human form, indicative, some believe, of its curative powers. To make a decoction, use 1/2 teaspoon of the powdered root in 6 to 8 ounces of boiling water, simmering for 10 minutes.

HOPS (Humulus lupulus) are small, conelike flowers that flavor and preserve beer.The mellow and peppery tea made from hops is believed to work as a mild sedative that relieves tension. Use 2 teaspoons of the fresh flowers or freezer-dried hops in 6 to 8 ounces of boiling water. Steep for 5 minutes or to taste.

LAVENDER (Lavandula spica, L. vera, L. angustifolia, L. officinalis) is one of the world's favorite herbs. Its aromatic flowers have scented baths and given fragrance to perfumes and potions since ancient Roman times. As an herbal tea, it has a slightly sweet, highly aromatic flavor. It's often used as an accent in blends. (Peet's Coffee Tea makes a delightful Earl Grey with Lavender. See "Resources,") Lavender is said to relieve fatigue, depression, and tension headaches. Use 2 teaspoons of the fresh flowers or 1 teaspoon dried in 6 to 8 ounces of boiling water. Steep for 3 to 5 minutes.

LEMON BALM (Melissa officinalis varieties) grows like a weed in many gardens. Infused into a hot beverage, it is valued for its restorative effects. Its lemony and invigorating infusion helps ease the stuffiness of a cold or the flu, as well as soothing nerves and aiding in digestion. Use 1/4 cup of the fresh leaves or 2 teaspoons dried in 6 to 8 ounces of boiling water. Steep for 5 to 10 minutes or to taste.

MINT(Mentha species), the ice cream of herbal beverages, comes in a plethora of pleasing flavor variations. Ancient Greeks and Romans spiked their dinner- and bath-water with mint sprigs. In medieval times, the herb was tossed on floors and trampled to sweeten stale rooms. Mint flavors range from peppermint to spearmint to apple, pineapple, and orange mint. The tea is a frequent home remedy for upset stomachs, headaches, and tension. Use 1 tablespoon of the fresh leaves or 2 teaspoons dried in 6 to 8 ounces of boiling water. Steep for 5 to 10 minutes or to taste.

PARSLEY (Petroselinum crispum) may be your splash of color on an otherwise dull dinner plate, but the hot beverage made from its fresh leaves is a tasty way to keep your breath clean, your joints limber, and your kidneys working. Parsley tea tastes the way it smells and is a great source of vitamin C. Use 1 tablespoon of the fresh leaves or 2 teaspoons dried in 6 to 8 ounces of boiling water. Steep for 5 to 10 minutes or to taste.

ROSE (Rosa species) petals make a lovely, aromatic brew if they are fragrant. It's the red-orange fruit, or hips, that people seek when they have a cold. The fruit of the dog rose (Rosa canina) is especially high in vitamin C-a single office cup more than equals an armload of oranges. Rose hip tea has a pleasant, mildly tart, and fruity taste. Use 1 tablespoon of the fresh petals or 2 teaspoons dried in 6 to 8 ounces of boiling water. Steep for 5 to 10 minutes or to taste. Grind rose hips in a clean coffee grinder and infuse, using 1 teaspoon to each cup of hot, not boiling, water, to retain the vitamin C. Steep for 5 to 10 minutes.

ROSEMARY(Rosmarinus officinalis) is a powerful herb that has been a symbol of fidelity, friendship, and remembrance since antiquity. The tea tastes the way the potent herb smells. It is an all-around digestive and is also comforting, especially when you feel a cold coming on. Rosemary is often combined with other herbs into tea blends. Use 1 tablespoon of the fresh leaves or 2 teaspoons dried in 6 to 8 ounces of boiling water. Steep to taste.

SAGE (Salvia officinalis) tea has been used as a digestive aid since Hippocrates' time. Today, people drink the highly aromatic tea to help alleviate the flulike symptoms of a bad cold. As the name implies, this tea supposedly keeps your brain sharp and your memory quick. Use 1 tablespoon of the fresh leaves or 2 teaspoons dried in 6 to 8 ounces of boiling water. Steep for 5 to 10 minutes or to taste, and serve with lemon.

THYME (Thymus vulgaris; T. x citriodorus, lemon thyme) is a culinary herb that enhances the flavor of many savory dishes and is essential to a bouquet garni. Thyme's leaves and flowers also make a pungent, slightly bitter tea that is best enjoyed with honey and is believed to help relieve headaches, sore throats, and irritable bowels. Use 1 tablespoon of the fresh leaves or up to 2 teaspoons dried in 6 to 8 ounces of boiling water. Steep for 5 to 10 minutes or to taste.