An Herbal Cup
Whether for taste or health, people have been enjoying tea brewed
from herbs for centuries. Here are some all-time favorites.
By Corinne Garcia
In the world of herbal teas, alfalfa is a powerhouse. “It’s a plant that’s been in the farming community for a long time and for good reason,” says clinical herbalist Kris Hill, who owns Hill Botanical in Bozeman, Montana. “It’s common feed for animals because of its high nutrient density, which is also great for soil health.” Farming aside, the Chinese have been using alfalfa since the sixth century to enhance well-being in people. Full of protein, vitamins (A, B, C, D and K) and flavonoids, along with iron, potassium and other minerals, alfalfa supports the immune system and bones. Herbalists employ it to help relieve arthritis, lower cholesterol, clean the blood and ease urinary tract problems. “It’s no wonder alfalfa is found in many powerful tea blends that support overall health,” Hill says.
Peter Rabbit’s mother gave the defiant, tired and nauseous little bunny a cup of chamomile tea to ease his tummy and help rest his nerves. Herbalists use it in similar circumstances today. “It’s a digestive aid, central nervous system calmer and anti-inflammatory,” Hill explains, making chamomile the perfect choice for after dinner or at the end of the day. With a medicinal
history dating back to the ancient Egyptians, chamomile has been used and appreciated in many cultures. As flowering annual plant (it’s a member of the daisy family) it is an attractive and useful addition to the garden as well. “Chamomile blends well with other herbs, like mint,” says Hill. “But I also love it alone, with its delicate, sweet flavor, as the perfect sleepytime tea.”
Although it’s been used by the Chinese for thousands of years, green tea just gained superstar status worldwide over the past 15 as an antioxidant with a relatively low caffeine content. “The health benefits are quite profound,” says tea master Frank Hadley Murphy, author of The Spirit of Tea (Sherman Asher Publishing). “Extensive studies in the late 1990s pointed out tea’s healing benefits and cancer-arresting properties.” Murphy says these benefits include digestive relief, body fat reduction, general detoxification and support for bone structure and density. Tea also promotes good oral health—tea twigs were once used as toothbrushes. Green tea has a very subtle taste if brewed properly and is often mixed with other herbs for flavor. “Use water that’s 160-170 degrees, not boiling,” says Murphy. “You’re not trying to cook the leaves, but just coaxing their more noble qualities and characters.” Green tea is also available in extract form.
The dried leaves of this beautiful tropical flower, which is abundant in Mexico, Hawaii and throughout the Caribbean islands, has long been brewed into a deep red tea. Because it is known in herbalist circles as a refrigerant—a plant high in antioxidants and flavonoids with cooling properties—the Egyptians used hibiscus for heat relief thousands of years ago. Steeping the leaves brings out a mucilage “that aids in digestion and is good for sore throat by coating the area and soothing the tissues,” Hill says. Recent studies indicate that hibiscus tea may help control cholesterol and lower blood pressure when consumed daily. Thanks to its high vitamin C content, hibiscus “has a tart taste that can be balanced with cinnamon or mixed with a little honey,” notes Hill.
The word “thistle” may bring thoughts of prickly plants to mind. But the seeds of the milk thistle, considered the premier liver remedy in traditional European herbalism, were first used by the ancient Romans, who believed it helped new mothers produce milk. In the late 1940s, European researchers started confirming milk thistle’s liver benefits. It contains the compound silymarin, which Hill says has been proven to support the liver by reducing inflammation, promoting tissue regeneration and aiding in detoxification. “It has a bitter, nutty flavor, and you’ll find it in a lot of different detox tea blends that are best utilized at night when the liver cleans itself,” Hill says. Silymarin is also available as a supplement.
There’s a refreshing quality about peppermint that not only gives a little natural zip to any dish or drink but also sweetens the breath. “Peppermint is a classic digestive aid, full of carminative properties that help to expel gas,” Hill says; today it is used to help ease symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Easy to grow at home, peppermint has a reputation for overtaking the garden and is best confined to a container. “It’s the classic European pot herb, grown right by the kitchen,” Hill says. “It’s anti-microbial, anti-spasmodic and anti-bacterial, and good for relieving cramping and muscle tension.” Peppermint’s high volatile oil content, including menthol, opens the airways and clears out the sinuses. “It’s great added to any kind of tea blend as a flavor enhancer, and on its own peppermint is a soothing tummy tea,” Hill suggests. Peppermint is also employed by aromatherapy as an essential oil.
Dried red raspberry leaves brew up into a tea widely associated with the reproductive system, which explains why raspberry leaf is found on the shelves of many mothers-to-be. “It’s really beneficial for all women no matter what stage of life you’re in,” says Hill. Raspberry leaf tea is high in tannins, vitamins and minerals, and acts as an astringent. “It strengthens the tissues and is especially toning for the uterine wall,” Hill says, making it a useful pregnancy tea. But raspberry leaf is not just beneficial for women; Hill notes that it supports and tones the prostate as well. Raspberry leaf tea is “a little bitter, with a slight raspberry flavor. I like it mixed with mint, cardamom, cinnamon or lemon as well,” says Hill.
As a popular plant with many varieties, the rose bush has spread worldwide from its roots in ancient Persia. Known for packing a punch in the vitamin C department—providing more than you’ll get from citrus fruit—and for being rich in nutrients, rose hips are the fruits of the rose plant. During a World War II citrus shortage in England, rose hips were gathered and used as a vitamin C source. “Rose hips are also full of antioxidants, which translates into cellular support,” Hill says. “And because of the vitamin C, they are often used to bolster the immune system.” Other benefits include improved skin health, arthritis relief and promoting calmness. Hill notes that rose hips are tart on their own, which explains why they are often blended with complementary flavors such as licorice chamomile, peppermint or lemon balm.
Additional Herbal Teas
This sweet, licorice-like herb, native to the eastern Mediterranean, has been used since the time of the ancient Egyptians to freshen breath, improve digestion and relieve gastrointestinal woes (including colic in children), ease coughs and expel mucus, and promote milk production. Tea is brewed from the seeds, which are also used to make anisette and similar liqueurs.
Native to the lush tropical forests of southern India, cardamom is a key ingredient in the spiced tea called chai. The pungent, sweet seeds are used in breads and Indian dishes such as dal. Ayurvedic practitioners employ cardamom to improve digestion, reduce gas and flatulence, and soothe stomach cramps.
It might make Kitty mighty silly, but catnip has been used for centuries to help humans feel calm and relaxed. It is also used before meals to enhance appetite and as a stress-reliving addition to bathwater. A member of the mint family, catnip’s flavor is enhanced by honey and lemon.
This South African native has a tart taste thanks to its high vitamin C content. Loaded with minerals as well, it has shown the ability to fight spasms, inflammation and viruses, and is used to fight allergies, stress and insomnia. Evidence suggests rooibos may be cardioprotective as well.