Sunday, December 3, 2006

The Complete Book of Herbal Teas: A brief history of tea.

By Marietta Marshall Marcin

Introduction

A few years ago some pesky mint appeared in my garden and began to spread, crowding out carefully cultivated annuals and perennials. I was beginning to plan a massive eradication program, when I came across a recipe for mint tea. Well, I thought, why not try it? The raw ingredients certainly were available. So I pulled up a few handfuls of mint and brewed my first cup of home-grown tea. It tasted great. So great, in fact, that the endangered garden mint took on new significance and was spared. The following year I planted lemon balm, fennel, marjoram and thyme, and tried those recipes, too. The result? I became hooked on herbal teas.

Later, I learned tea is drunk more than any other liquid except water. Throughout recorded history tea has been used to sustain life, enhance sleep, restore health, and ease conversation, to name just a few of its uses. Some people like it hot. Some like it cold. Some like it mixed with sugar, lemon, honey, milk, or with stronger stuff, such as gin or brandy. And some like it straight.

In the narrowest sense of the word, tea refers to the leaves or flower buds of shrubs in the genus that was named Thea sinensis by Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus. Since Thea sinensis tea is a close relative of the camellia flower, it is sometimes referred to as Camellia thea or Camellia sinensis. Broadly speaking, however, tea is any drink made from steeping fragrant leaves, berries, seeds, flowers, roots, or bark in boiling water.

Imported Thea sinensis teas all come from evergreen plants of the same genus. Lapsang souchong tea is a smoked version of Thea sinensis leaves, and black, green, and oolong teas can also be made from leaves of the same plant. They differ only in the degree of fermentation they have undergone during processing. Most imported teas are grown at high altitudes where it is continually hot, wet, and very humid. Darjeeling tea, for example, comes from the mountains of Darjeeling, in India.

Imported Thea sinensis teas traditionally have been served side by side with teas made from herbal leaves plucked from the garden. Indeed, the decision to serve Thea sinensis teas rather than herbal teas has often been made more for reasons of prestige than for taste.

As coffee prices have gone sky-high, so too has the price of store-bought teas escalated. But as I found, you can easily grow and brew exotic herbal teas, full of tastes and aromas you never believed possible. The cost to you is a few pennies a cup; the experience is priceless. Herbs that make exciting teas can be grown in your garden or in flowerpots on your windowsill, whether you live in southern California or northern Nova Scotia, in London or Sydney.

This book gives you all the information you need to brew the perfect cup of herbal tea. It spells out how to grow the plants, harvest the tea components, prepare and store the ingredients you'll need, and mix them for interesting blends. You'll learn where to buy seeds and plants. You'll even find where to buy bags and containers in which to package your own "private label" blends. Sound complicated? It's really easy once you know how. And, while you're harvesting herbal teas either on a small or grand scale, you can also use them as potpourris, fabric dyes, garnishes, and seasonings for the cooking pot.

People have always sworn by the medicinal qualities of herbal teas. While health authorities, such as the United States Food and Drug Administration frown upon claims that herbal teas can actually cure ailments, millions of people maintain they do. I'll outline some of the medicinal uses to which herbal teas have been put. But by no means are the herbal teas described in this book presented as prescriptions for medical ailments. Clearly, as with any medical problem you may have, it's important to consult a professional practitioner for diagnosis and treatment.

This book is the only guide you'll need to take the journey of taste discovery that comes from brewing herbal teas. Let us take that trip together.

1. A brief history of tea

Deep in the misty mountains of China, the Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism, sat in a garden near the emperor's palace, meditating on the perfection of Buddha. Called Ta'Mo' (White Buddha) by the Chinese, the swarthy, rotund saint had come to China from India bearing the sacred bowl of his ancestors. Ta'Mo' vowed to demonstrate his devotion to Buddha by sitting before a wall and meditating for nine years.

Spring turned to summer; autumn came with crisp air and colored, falling leaves. Still Ta'Mo' meditated. Winter came and covered the saint's cloak with snow as he sat unblinking and unsleeping. Finally, after many years had passed, the Bodhidharma's attention wavered, his chin dropped, and his eyes closed in sleep.

When Ta'Mo' awakened-perhaps a day, perhaps a year later-he was so angry with himself for neglecting his meditation that he took out a knife, sliced off both his eyelids, and threw them to the ground. The saint's eyelids took root in the rich soil and grew into a tea bush, the symbol of wakefulness.

This is the most popular of the legends about the origin of Thea sinensis, the botanical name for what is commonly called the tea plant, which we associate with black, green, oolong, and orange pekoe teas. Like other stories about the origin of tea and the rituals of tea drinking, fact and fiction are intertwined so thoroughly that it is hard to separate them.


The discovery of Thea sinensis tea

Ta'Mo' died about 530 A.D., but the Chinese claim they discovered the tea plant much earlier. They called it "the gift of heaven," and it was mentioned, along with other herbs used for medicinal purposes, about 2737 B.C. in the writings of the legendary emperor Shen Nung.

According to legend, Shen Nung observed that people who boiled their drinking water remained healthier than those who didn't, so he always made sure his water was boiled. On a trip to a neighboring province, the emperor's servants started a fire to boil water for him. As the water was heating, a breeze blew some of the tender leaves from the uppermost twigs of the firewood into the pot. Attracted by the fragrance of the resulting liquid, the emperor "tasted it and found it good," as the saying goes. Thus began a tea-drinking custom that has persisted to this day.

Originally the tea made by infusing the Thea sinensis herb was used only as a medicinal brew, as were teas made from many other herbal plants. Thea sinensis tea soon became a popular beverage because of its flavor, and the word tea came to be associated with this plant. Although the cultivation of tea began in China, it gradually spread to Japan and the rest of the Far East. It was not cultivated in India until 1832, when the British introduced it there, long after it had become a popular beverage in England and the United States.

Derivation of the word tea

The word tea has an interesting history. When Thea sinensis tea was first introduced in England it was pronounced cha or tcha from the Mandarin and Cantonese dialects spoken in Macao, the port from which the tea was shipped. When a Cockney housewife says it would be nice to have "a cup of char," she is speaking perfectly respectable Chinese, a holdover from the original word. Later tea was imported to England from the Chinese port of Amoy. In the Amoy dialect, it was called t'e, and it was from this word that the word tea was derived.

The word tisane came from the Latin ptisana and the Greek ptisane. Originally, tisane meant pearl barley and barley water, but over the years it has come to mean any infusion of herbal leaves in boiling water.

Tea comes to England

No one knows for sure exactly when Thea sinensis tea was first brought to England, but in 1658, an enterprising merchant named Thomas Garway placed an advertisement in the publication Mercurius Politicus announcing that: "The excellent and by all Physitians approved China Drink, called by the Chineans Tcha, by other nations Tay, alias Tee,

can be procured at Sultaness Head Cophee-House in Sweeting's Rents by the Royal Exchange." Garway extolled the medicinal qualities of tea as a stimulant. He wrote that "tea removeth lassitude, vanquisheth heavy dreams, easeth the frame, and strengtheneth the memory. It overcometh superfluous sleep, and prevents sleepiness in general, so that without trouble whole nights may be passed in study"

Dutch ships from the Orient brought tea, along with other "riches of the rising sun" to Holland, and from there Lords Ossory and Arlington began bringing consignments of tea to England. What started as an infant trade quickly became a rage. Soon Thea sinensis teas were being served in all of England's most famous coffeehouses.

As the popularity of tea drinking grew, tax revenues from the sale of beer and wine declined. To compensate for this loss of income, in 1660 Charles II imposed the first English tea taxes, paving the way for a thriving black market in tea.

The earliest American settlers did not share the English passion for drinking imported teas. Tea drinking was probably introduced to the colonies somewhat later, by the burghers of New Amsterdam. William Penn brought Thea sinensis tea to the Quaker colony he founded in what is now Delaware in 1682. But by the 1750s, American colonists were quaffing tea as heartily as the English.

Early recorded uses of herbal teas

Herbal teas, other than Thea sinensis, have been brewed for thousands of years. The earliest records talk of using herbs for healing rather than flavoring. In 410 B.C., Plato mentioned herbal teas in his writings. Seventy years later, Aristotle discussed herbal teas, and his disciple Theophrastus wrote a detailed work, "On the History of Plants," which described the uses of herbs. Herbals with detailed illustrations, and instructions for brewing herbal teas, have been revised and expanded ever since.

The Roman statesmen Cicero, Seneca, and Pliny the Elder practiced advanced forms of horticulture and wrote about their experiences. Pliny's Natural History (77 A.D.), affirms the importance of growing herbaceous plants both for kitchen and medicinal uses. He outlined how to plant, transplant, and harvest them. Pliny also spelled out the medicinal uses of each herb, and also how to administer each one -as lotion, powder, or tea. Many herbal teas were to be brewed with water and vinegar, he said, which may explain why herb teas weren't popular as beverages until later, when they came to be brewed in water alone. His descriptions of the juices and flavors of each herb characterize savory and wild marjoram as having "an acrid taste," others as being "sweet" or "pungent."

Pliny catalogued the germination times of many herbs, noting that some plants continued to appear every year, while others had to be newly sown from seed if they were to come up again. "No seed is more prolific than basil," he said. "They recommend sowing it with curses and imprecations to make it come up more abundantly."

Wealthy Romans took their herb culture seriously. The mild Italian winters still were not quite warm enough to keep some tender herbs from being destroyed, so plants were placed under thin sheets of mica (plate glass had not been developed yet) to protect them from the chill. And warm water was often piped around the roses, which were particularly admired for both their beauty and medicinal qualities.

Herbal teas in the New World

In England, herbal teas were widely cultivated and used. When the Pilgrim fathers sailed to the New World, they brought seeds or plants of their favorite herbs with them. Most larger houses had both an herb garden and a "still room" for cultivating herbs.

While the tea of Thea sinensis remained the favorite herbal beverage, those who couldn't afford it continued to make teas from other, more easily accessible herbs. Chamomile, peppermint, and elderflower teas were especially popular.

One herbal tea beloved of the colonists was Oswego tea, made from the dry flower heads of American wild bergamot (Monarch didyma), also called bee balm. (The resulting liquid tastes like one of the scented Chinese teas.) Some say the colonists learned to make Oswego tea from the Indians, others that it was devised as a New World version of a European tisane.

After the Boston Tea Party, patriotic ladies banished imported teatermed "the baneful herb" by the clergyman and educator John Andrews-from their tables and turned to domestically grown herbal teas. They called these beverages "liberty teas." Some of their herbal combinations-made from mint, balm, rosemary, and sage-are still favorites today.

After the Revolutionary War, the Americans imported tea directly from China, and Thea sinensis became easily attainable and inexpensive once again. A few of the more flavorful herbal beverages were still used, but most home-grown teas were returned to the medicine chest. Imported herbs were now also easy to come by, for those who wanted them, so the cultivation of herbs declined, too.

It wasn't until the outbreak of World War I that England and America were faced with the unpleasant realization that they had become largely dependent on German sources for medicinal and cooking herbs. There ensued an upsurge in home-grown herb cultivation.

Recent growth in the herbal tea market

The use of herbs in cooking has never been as great in England and America as in France. Recent interest in gourmet cookery, however, has meant that more people are using herbs in the kitchen. Along with this development has come a marked increase in the consumption of herbal teas.

The natural foods movement has also contributed to the growing appreciation of herbs-they have no food additives, artificial coloring, chemically produced flavors, or caffeine. The discovery that caffeine is not only an artificial mental and physical stimulant but also an addictive substance has caused the health-conscious to turn more and more to herbal teas. For while coffee, cocoa, and Thea sinensis teas contain caffeine, herbal teas do not.

For many years a favorite only with health-food devotees, herbal tea is becoming universally popular. In Europe, herbal tea sales have soared from 5 percent of the tea market several years ago to more than 60 percent today. In the United States, growth has been more moderate, but sales have improved each year.

Packaged herbal teas now account for about 10 percent of the United States tea market, up from virtually nothing fifteen years ago. Twenty years ago, the industry leader, Celestial Seasonings, Inc., wasn't even in business. In 1975, five years after it began marketing colorful little boxes of herbal teas through health food stores, the company broke the $1 million mark in sales. Sales doubled in 1976. In 19$1, gross revenues rose to over $23 million. Celestial now sells about 4 million pounds of herbs a year.

Sensing a sharp inroad into the China tea market, the two large American tea companies, Lipton and Bigelow, recently jumped onto the herbal tea bandwagon. Sales of herbal products in the United States are now estimated at between $150 and $200 million a year, with packaged herbal teas accounting for about $90 million of the total. The Food and Drug Administration entered the herbal tea picture a few years ago, ordering two companies to stop producing sassafras tea, an age-old prescription for upset stomach and for nerves. When boiled, sassafras releases a substance called safrole, a known carcinogen which the FDA has banned as a food additive. Researchers later discovered a person would have to ingest more sassafras tea in a day than most people do in a year in order to get the same concentration of safrole that had produced some cancers in laboratory animals, so the ban on sassafras tea has been lifted. There is no doubt, however, that excessive use of certain herbal teas can be injurious to your health.

Dr. James Duke, head of the Medicinal Plant Resources Laboratory of the U. S. Department of Agriculture, believes stevia and catnip are hallucinogens if taken in excess. He also maintains that arnica, belladonna, bittersweet, helbane, hemlock, and secuda, commonly sold for herb teas, are poisonous, and that bloodroot contains some of the same alkaloids as opium. This has made it a rage in some circles for making "high" tea.

Despite these gloom-and-doom announcements, however, most herbal teas are beneficial, not poisonous, if drunk in moderation.

One of the most highly touted herbal teas is ginseng. Tour any herb store or Chinese emporium and you will see a hefty display of it. Ginseng is believed to increase sexual potency, lengthen lifespan, and produce a feeling of well-being. Korean red root ginseng, Korean white root ginseng, Manchurian ginseng, Manchurian red ginseng, Canadian ginseng, and, for the connoisseur, Imperial Chinese ginseng, are considered the finest ginseng teas available. They are thought so potent that they are usually taken only once or twice a year. One variety of ginseng, Panax quinquefolium, is grown in the United States, although it is difficult to cultivate.

The FDA concerned itself with ginseng for a while, but doesn't anymore. FDA laboratory tests indicated ginseng has no effect on the body whatsoever, though satisfied ginseng users beg to differ.

Producing enough herbs to meet the new demand for herbal teas has become something of a problem. Since they must be picked by hand, most herbs are grown in Third World countries where labor costs are low. Many herbs are also picked wild, or are purchased from small growers with backyard plots.

Controlling quality by growing your own herbs

Harvesting, processing, and shipping delicate herbs grown in many different places can make quality control difficult. You can surmount these problems, though, by growing herbs yourself. You won't be growing them in such great quantities that pickers will be hard to find. You can sort and prepare them, keeping their quality as refined as your taste. And you can experiment with blending them, augmenting the blends with a few ingredients from your local herb supply store.

Herbs you grow for tea also make good additions to salads, soups, or main dishes. Extras can be used in potpourris, sachets, herbal butters, and vinegars, or to make decorative, long-lasting floral displays that scent your home long after the growing season is past.

People with vegetable gardens-and it is estimated that close to one-half of all families in the United States now grow some of their own food-find herbs are easy to grow. In fact, mint, bergamot, chamomile, and dandelion have been growing around us, wild, all along. So let's move on to the practical business of growing these herbs, and many others, and discovering just how easy it is to brew your own herbal tea delights.

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