Ever wish you could drink a cup of magic potion to alleviate that headache or soothe those nerves after a long, exhausting day? Herb teas, called tisanes, may be as near a potion as you'll ever find, offering an incredibly wide variety of flavors and medicinal uses.
Old-fashioned horehound tea, for example, is considered good for colds and sore throats. Elder tea, which smells and tastes like lilacs, can be helpful to asthmatics and those with skin trouble. Spicy sassafras tea makes an excellent spring tonic. If your main interest is getting hooked on a delicious herb tea—as opposed to a caffeine-plagued coffee or tannic-acid-filled tea—you can try an assortment of teas, from lemon to licorice to apple. Serve them steaming hot in fall or winter, or refreshingly iced in summer—and sweeten with honey if desired.
To introduce yourself to herb teas, purchase a quarter-ounce of several different types of tea herbs. If you purchase them at an herb shop or farmers' market, make sure each package of herbs is labeled or otherwise marked so you'll know what it is when you get home. Most herb teas come in tea bags as well. Note: Use equal parts of caution and common sense when consuming herbs as you would with any type of medication. In the beginning, don't overdo the strength of your beverage mixture or the amount you drink.
Preparing Herb Tea
To use loose herbs, you'll need a tea bob or strainer and a glass or porcelain container with a tight-fitting lid. Add one teaspoon of the herb or herb mixture to one cup of boiling water and steep in container for five minutes. (Amount of tea and steeping time can be adjusted to taste.) If making only one cup, cover with a saucer while brewing. Metal teapots without linings, such as those made from aluminum, are not suitable because traces of the metal can contaminate the herbs.
For iced tea, add four to eight teaspoons of herbs (according to taste) to a quart of boiling water. Steep for approximately five minutes, let cool, and serve over ice. If you like a richer, stronger taste throughout the course of your drink, make and freeze some herbal tea in ice cube trays ahead of time to add to your glass.
Another refreshing option is sun tea: Add four to eight teaspoons of herbs to a quart or so of cold water in a clear glass container and place in the sun for two to six hours. Chill and serve over ice.
Infusions are made only from the leaves and flowers of herbs, which release their volatile oils when steeped in a teapot of boiling-hot water. (If the herbs are simply boiled, the oil evaporates.) Crush one teaspoon of dried herbs for every cup of water and put into teapot with an extra teaspoon added for good measure. (You can also use a handful of fresh herbs.) Pour boiling water over the herbs and let stand five to 15 minutes until it reaches the desired strength.
All seeds and roots, and the leaves of a few herbs such as horehound, lemon balm, and bee balm, must be boiled to extract their volatile oils. To make a decoction, first crush the roots or seeds, allowing one teaspoonful for each cup of water and one for the pot. Boil the herbs for 15 to 20 minutes in a glass or porcelain container. Seeds, roots, and bark such as sassafras may also be percolated like coffee. Decoctions are often used in preparing medicinal herbs.
For a real hot blast, heat your teapot before adding boiling water for an infusion or pouring in a decoction. Or do as the English do: knit or sew a "tea cozy" to cover and insulate your teapot.
A Guide to Herbs Used for Healing
ALFALFA: The seeds and leaves of this valuable herb are packed full of vitamins A, D, E, and K. Alfalfa is also considered to be one of the best sources of essential minerals.
It also contains eight known enzymes and makes a mild, grassy tisane that can be flavored with mint.
ANGELICA: Known in the past as the "root of the Holy Ghost," this heavenly aromatic variety reputedly sweetens the digestive tract and strengthens the heart.
BERGAMOT: Also called Oswego, this tea was first used by Native Americans in the eastern United States who introduced it to the settlers. This orange-scented, slightly bitter tisane soothes nerves and pacifies upset stomachs.
BORAGE: The cucumber-flavored leaves make great iced tea. Rich in calcium and potassium, this brew increases the milk supply of nursing mothers. Reputedly aids those who are nervous or depressed.
BURDOCK: A superlative herb that Pechey, writing in his Complete Herbal (1694), said "stirs up lust' It's also supposed to help you lose weight, clear the complexion, and cleanse the blood. Either buy the dried root or dig the year-old plants yourself in spring or fall. Once you learn to identify it, you'll find it's a common weed that grows nearly everywhere.
CARAWAY: For a new way to enjoy these savory seeds, bruise them with a mortar and pestle and make a mild, tonic-like decoction. Caraway reputedly stimulates digestion and helps overcome nausea. Tip: cool tea in the refrigerator and use as an inexpensive mouthwash. Do not take if pregnant; seeds encourage menstruation.
CATNIP: An old-time remedy for chasing away feverish colds, nervous headaches, insomnia, and various other aches and ills, catnip is also a pleasant tea for everyday use. .
CHAMOMILE: Makes a delicious, golden-colored, apple-flavored brew. Once used by the Egyptians to prevent aging skin. Extremely popular in Europe and with women having menstrual problems. Chamomile may not be everyone's cup of tea because it causes allergic reactions in some. If you're not sure, try a weak brew and see how you feel. Increase strength and amount consumed as desired.
CHICORY: A common, blue-flowered species of wild lettuce. Tea made from the leaves reputedly tones up the internal system and has a mild laxative effect. The roots can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute. Many Native Americans out West chew the chicory root as a tonic chewing gum.
CLOVER: A delicate tisane may be brewed from the dried flowers of the red clover. This iron-rich herb is considered a wonderful blood purifier.
DAMINIA: An aromatic tisane may be made from the leaves of this small shrub. Reputed to be a stimulant, purgative, and aphrodisiac.
DANDELION: This well-known plant, generally considered a garden pest, is actually a valuable medicinal herb. The next time you dig it up, save the leaves and brew a tea from them. Dandelion is said to have a slightly laxative effect. Also, the roasted roots, mixed with a dash of cayenne pep-per, make an excellent coffee substitute with tonic properties.
DILL: A weak decoction of the seeds is reputedly a good remedy for hiccoughs.
ELDER: Flowers of the elderberry plant make a great tisane that tastes a lot like lilacs. Said to be good for bronchial and asthmatic complaints. Often mixed with yarrow to help ward off colds, elder can also be used externally to clear the skin's blemishes.
FENUGREEK: This nutritious tea is rich in lecithin and iron and is considered helpful for those who are trying to gain weight. Pour boiling water over the bruised seeds, let steep, and eat the seeds when you finish the tea. Also reputedly good for fighting fever and sore throats.
GINGER: This spicy tea will excite and warm you on even the most chilling of wintry nights. It has a strengthening and cheering effect on the body, making a great tea to serve to guests.
GINSENG: A tea made from the ginseng root is highly valued in the Orient for preventing disease and aging. Revered by the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans for centuries, ginseng is now gaining wide favor in the United States.
GOLDEN SEAL: One of the most valuable plants in the herbal kingdom. A tea brewed from the roots reputedly will improve the appetite and aid almost any disability. Also good for the skin.
GOTU KOLA: A pungent tea brewed from the leaves is supposed to have an energizing effect on the brain. An old saying from the Far East claims, "Two leaves a day will keep old age away:'
HOLLYHOCK: A deep purple, good-tasting drink is brewed from hollyhock's flowers. It's reputedly a tonic for the heart that can also be used to soothe sore throats.
HOREHOUND: An old-fashioned remedy for coughs and colds. Promotes perspiration and has a laxative effect if taken in large doses. Mixed with honey, it is said to clear the vision. Makes a bitter brew, so sweeten generously.
LAVENDER: This perfumy broth reputedly soothes the nerves and cures headaches. It makes an exotic-tasting tea best served as a mild infusion spiked with lemon.
LEMON VERBENA: One of the best tasting teas, it's mild and lemony with a grassy taste. It is used to treat indigestion and flatulence, and has a mild sedative effect.
LINDEN: An aromatic tisane widely used in France and Germany for its pleas-ant taste. A fragrant oil in the flowers gives off a strong aroma. Used medicinally for gastric disturbances and nausea.
LOVAGE: A rich, celery-flavored brew may be concocted from the roots and seeds. Has antiseptic qualities and reputedly works as a natural deodorant when taken internally. It is rich in vitamin C.
MARIGOLD: A golden tea is made from the dried blossoms of the pot marigold variety called "calendula." It supposedly helps clear up skin problems and acts as a general tonic. It's often mixed with mint.
PARSLEY: This favorite culinary herb makes a healthful, aromatic tea with tonic and cleansing effects. It is rich in vitamins A, B, and C, as well as potassium. Caution: Not recommended for women who are nursing because it tends to dry up the milk supply.
PENNYROYAL: A pleasant, healthful tea popular for many generations. Drink frequently if coming down with a cold. Also reputedly good for fevers, nervousness, and skin diseases.
RASPBERRY: Leaves from the red raspberry bush make an energizing and nerve-soothing tea that is also supposedly good for canker sores and sore throats.
ROSE: Rose "hips" make a delicious tea containing large quantities of vitamin C. Also rich in potassium and vitamins B-1, B-2, and E. Mixes well with other herbs and recommended for daily use. Let steep for 20 minutes.
ROSEMARY: Said to be good for indigestion, colds, and headaches. Many believe it improves memory.
SAGE: A delicious Old English tea that makes a good tonic. Said to make hair grow, relieve pain in the joints, quicken the senses, and aid the memory. Better than coffee for a quick pick-me-up.
SASSAFRAS: A spring tonic dating from the Colonial era, sassafras bark makes a pungent brew that can be percolated like coffee. It is said to cleanse the blood.
TANSY: Slightly tart, this tea tastes like citronella. It is said to be good for fevers, flu, and varicose veins. Make a weak infusion using no more than one teaspoon of tansy per pint of water.
THYME: The several varieties of thyme make refreshing tisanes. These calming brews are usually drunk after meals as a digestive aid. They also have a most beneficial effect on the mucous membranes. A tea made from lemon thyme is a delight.
VALERIAN: Even the skeptical pharmaceutical world hails the benefits of this herb, which eases pain and promotes sleep. Also combats cold, measles, colic, and stomach ulcers. Use in small doses as an infusion; never boil the root.
WINTERGREEN: Good for those who suffer from aches and pains in damp weather. Said to stimulate the heart, stomach, and lungs. Good as gargle for sore throats.
YARROW: A powerful medicinal herb used since Achilles popularized it as a "wound" herb in ancient Greece. Considered an important blood builder, yarrow is used for colds and pneumonia. Believed to be more effective than aspirin for headaches and completely safe to use.
Disclaimer: The information contained herein should not be considered a substitute for common sense or a consultation with a duly licensed health-care professional.
Carol Pearson is a Chicago-based writer and herbalist who has faithfully grown and picked her own herbs for more than 20 years.