Why are herbal teas also referred to as infusions or tisanes? Are they real teas? Let's try to clear the confusion around an ancient drink that has helped us unwind and stay healthy for thousands of years.
Tisane is a term borrowed from the French and used since antiquity to designate a medicinal drink.
Already a common word in late Middle English, the term "tisane" came from Old French, which in turn originates from the Latin ptisana, which is derived from the Greek ptisanē. It was a drink of barley infused in water (still consumed widely in Japan and South Korea). The word was reintroduced in the 20th century.
I like to use the term "tisane" because I am originally from France but also because tisanes cannot technically be considered as teas since they do not derive from the Camellia Sinensis plant. Herbals, sometimes referred to as botanicals, are infusions of leaves, roots, bark, seeds, flowers, or fruits and have been used for thousands of years for their health promoting actions. They have also gained much popularity because they do not contain caffeine and generally promote relaxation and well-being.
Herbal infusions hail as far back as ancient China. Emperor and herbalist Shen Nong was credited for discovering tea in 2737 BC while mixing some herbal potions. In ancient Egypt, chamomile was already used to honor the gods, embalm the dead and cure the sick. Botanicals grow throughout the world and have a long and deep-rooted history in almost all regions of the world.
In many cultures, it is believed that a certain balance should be maintained in the body to stay healthy and herbal teas are used among many other methods to support healing.
These systems of healing seem to have influenced our modern offering of herbal teas, so it is interesting to look at their philosophy.
The Greek system is the ancestor of our Western healing system and was developed by Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates who believed in the balance of phlegm. Herbal teas were widely used and included nettle, chamomile, peppermint, sage, dandelion, rosehip and yarrow.
Ayurveda is one of the world’s oldest holistic healing systems stressing the importance of the balance between body, mind and spirit.
To balance the doshas, botanical blends using roots such as ginger and turmeric as well as spices such as cumin, coriander and fennel and herbs like lemongrass are widely used.
Chinese medicine’s basic concept is that a vital force of life, called Qi, surges through the body. Any imbalance to Qi can cause disease and illness. Typical herbal teas to regain equilibrium include ginger, licorice, ginseng, chrysanthemum, and mint.
But beyond these concepts, herbs are often classified in categories, amongst which adaptogens have recently generated a lot of buzz. They basically help our bodies manage the response to physical, mental and environmental stress and lower inflammation. Good examples are ashwagandha, turmeric and licorice.
Other categories include alteratives, herbs that help with metabolism (like nettle), and bitters, herbs that help stimulate appetite and digestion and include ginger and orange peel. Carminative herbs will also help digestion and include anis, chamomile, ginger, fennel and peppermint.
Aromatics are herbs that contain volatile essential oils and are helpful to maintain a clear respiratory tract like anis and peppermint. I also find them very calming.
Nervine herbs specifically help support the nervous system and bring calm and serenity in our daily lives. Chamomile, lavender and lemon balm are perfect examples. How about a cup of monastery garden tisane?
As you can see, herbal teas have been used throughout the centuries for their many benefits, and have crossed borders to be incorporated in blends that offer a wide range of aromas and flavor profiles. Think of how, so popular in Europe, blends wonderfully with hibiscus originating from Africa to offer us a cooling and invigorating fruity blend such as wild berry tisane!
Besides the existing blends, it is fun and easy to make your own depending on your mood or inclination.
Here are a few recommandations that I like to play with, generally in equal parts but not necessarily:
They are also wonderful to blend with rooibos, another caffeine-free infusion hailing from South Africa:
They are delicious hot with or without sweetener and so refreshing when iced in the summer!