Herbal Tea for Health: Fall Nights Call for Piping Hot Tisanes

Herbal teas make fragrant, relaxing cold-weather beverages.

Tulsi got me into drinking herbal teas. Tulsi, also called holy basil, is a sacred herb in India and amazing for stress relief, relaxation, and rejuvenation. A good friend told me of its wonders and gave me a few leaves from her garden to try. It was a cool November evening, a perfect night for a warm cup. That first sip was so inspiring I spent the rest of the night by the fire loving life and writing poetry. Herbs have been my cup of tea (pun intended!) ever since.

What’s In A Name?

When it comes to hot drinks made with herbs, the word “tea” is technically a misnomer, since true teas are prepared from the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. The proper name for an herbal brew is tisane, which is any beverage prepared by infusing or decocting plant materials into hot water. The name “herbal teas” enjoys popular use, however, and while not everyone knows of tisane, most everyone knows of herbal tea.

Getting an Epic Extraction

Making a cup of herbal tea is deceptively simple: Boil water, add herbs, steep, strain, drink. Getting a great cup of tea, however, is both a science and an art.

Let’s start with the science. Herbal teas are water extractions, in which the essential oils and other compounds of herbs are transferred from raw plant material into water. Extractions can be performed by infusion, a gentler process that works well with leaves and flowers, or by decoction, a more mechanical method that works well with stems, seeds, roots, and hips.

To perform an herb infusion, bring cold water to a full boil, turn off the heat, add the plant material, cover, and steep for 5 to 15 minutes. Use 1 tablespoon per cup of water for fresh herbs, or 1 teaspoon per cup for dried. Be sure to shred or crush the leaves or flowers to help release the oils.

To perform a decoction, begin by thoroughly crushing or mashing the plant material to help release the oils. Bring cold water to a boil, add the herbs, and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes before taking the pot off the heat. Use 1 tablespoon of herb for every 2 cups of water.

And now for the art. How do you know when your herbal tea is ready? Should you steep for 5 minutes or 15 minutes? The answer is: steep to taste. Herbal teas may show little color, so judge your tea readiness by flavor, not by sight. Luckily, herbal teas are pretty forgiving when it comes to oversteeping. If you want to make a stronger tea, however, use extra leaves rather than a longer steeping time. Stay under 15 minutes.

The quality of your water—and definitely of your herb—matters when you’re brewing a cup of tea. I never use tap water for tea without at least filtering it beforehand; I prefer spring water for my teas. The best herbs, as always, are the ones you grow yourself in your organic home garden. If you’re buying your herb teas, pay attention to their appearance. Cheaper teas are finely chopped leaves and stems, often sold in boxes of tea bags. Higher quality teas will usually have the full leaf intact.

herb tea, herbal tea

What’s in Your Cup?

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of herbs that make fragrant and delicious teas that can do wonders for your body. The following is a just a brief (and biased) list of herbs that grow well in Iowa:

Chamomile is a plant from the daisy family whose small flowers have a light, apple-like taste and calming qualities. Drink this tea for depression, anxiety, and panic or to promote relaxation and sleep.

Echinacea (or purple coneflower) is a member of the sunflower family well known to boost immunity. It tingles on the tongue and tastes kind of earthy. Drink this tea when you feel a cold or flu coming on.

Fennel is an aromatic plant from the parsley family that promotes stable glucose levels and boosts serotonin and endorphin levels. As a bonus, it has a nice licorice taste. Drink this tea to help prevent mood swings.

Lavender is a fragrant herb in the mint family that is widely known for its calming effects. Drink this tea to relax, calm your mood, and induce restful sleep.

Lemon Balm is yet another member of the mint family. It provides a sense of calmness, and the citrus oils help to lower blood pressure. Drink this tea when under stress or combine balm with other herbs to add a lemony twist to your teas.

Mint comes in many varieties, all of which have been used as teas. Peppermint is probably the most popular variety for tea, and peppermint tea has long been known as a digestive-system soother. Drink this tea for tummy troubles.

Nettle (or stinging nettle) makes a grassy-tasting tea known for its detoxifying and anti-inflammatory properties. It has been used for centuries to treat allergy symptoms. It also has diuretic qualities that make it popular for prostate and urinary issues.

Thyme is a common remedy for stomach ailments, lung congestion, and cough. It tastes herby. Drink this tea to relieve cold and flu symptoms and for other respiratory conditions.

Tulsi (or holy basil), milder in flavor than other basil varieties, is famous for its adaptogen content. Adaptogens help fight stress and keep the body young. Drink this tea for peace and long life.

Valerian has been used as a medicinal herb since the times of ancient Greece and Rome. It is a famous natural sedative for insomnia. Drink this tea to get a great night’s sleep.

All of these herbs also provide antioxidants, which are always good for fighting oxidative stress and promoting general health and well-being. Again, this list is just a glimpse into the tea possibilities for the Iowa garden—there is a whole world of herbal teas out there that are yours to discover!

Jocelyn Engman is the proprietor of Pickle Creek Herbs, makes of herb-infused oils, vinegars, soaps, salves, and lip balms. See their products at picklecreek.com.