What is herbal tea?
The term herbal tea, or herb tea, refers to any hot-water infusion made of any plant or combination of plants other than the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. Some tea connoisseurs object to the use of the term "tea" to refer to herbal teas, because herbal teas do not contain any true tea. These people often advocate for the use of the term tisane, or the unwieldy and formal-sounding term herbal infusion. However, the term "herbal tea" is in widespread use, and we will use it here.
Herbal teas are incredibly diverse and span the full range of flavors and aromas. There are generally two classes of herbal teas: those used primarily as beverages, and those used primarily for medicinal purposes. However, there is much overlap between these two groups. Nearly all of the herbs consumed primarily as beverages still carry potent health benefits, and the line between drink and medicine can sometimes be blurry.
The most popular types of herbal teas:
Mint is one of the most popular herbs for using either as a beverage on its own, or for blending with other herbs. There are numerous varieties of mint; the most popular two are spearmint and peppermint. Another important mint is apple mint, used in traditional Moroccan mint tea, and commonly grown in temperate gardens throughout the world.
The lemon-scented herbs are another popular source of herbal teas. Lemongrass, used as a seasoning in Thai, Vietnamese, and other cuisines, also makes an outstanding drink when infused in hot water. Other lemon-scented herbs include lemon balm, lemon verbena (native to Australia), and lemon verbena. The lemon-scented herbs are unrelated to lemon (or to each other), but they share certain aroma chemicals in common. These lemony chemicals include citral, which has been studied for its cancer-fighting potential.
Relaxing Herbs: Chamomile, Tulsi, and Others:
Chamomile is one of the most well-known herbs, and chamomile tea is a popular bedtime drink, due to its relaxing effects. Another relaxing herb, less known in the west, but equally important, is tulsi. Tulsi, also called holy basil, is a species of basil native to India, with a spicy, clove-like aroma. Both tulsi and chamomile have been shown to promote relaxation, and both herbs show evidence of being able to lower blood sugar, which can be important in preventing or managing type 2 diabetes. Tulsi also shows some evidence of being effective for treating anxiety, and having positive overall effects on the immune system.
These are only two of the many herbs used to promote relaxation. Caffeine-free herbal teas are generally seen as relaxing. Passionflower and lemon balm are a few of the many herbs used to treat anxiety or help people relax.
Rooibos & Honeybush:
A discussion of herbal teas would not be complete without mention of rooibos and honeybush, two plants native to the West Cape province of South Africa, which are both sometimes referred to as "Red Tea". These plants both produce caffeine-free herbal teas which are said to be more similar in flavor and aroma to black tea than the infusions of any other herbs. Rooibos in particular has been studied for its medicinal properties, including its use to prevent or treat asthma. Honeybush has been less extensively studied but shows promise of similar properties. Both rooibos and honeybush are beginning to be produced in green as well as red varieties. Green rooibos and green honeybush have a flavor and properties similar to green tea, as they are produced in a similar manner.
Other Herbal Teas:
The number of herbal teas out there is virtually endless. Countless leaves, roots, seeds, and even bark from trees and shrubs are used, both on their own, and in blends, to produce herbal teas. This page is only a brief introduction to the topic of tisanes and herbs used for beverages or medicinal purposes. Only by trying herbs for yourself will you truly begin to appreciate and understand the richness that herbs have to offer.
Alex Zorach is the creator of RateTea, an interactive website where anyone can rate and review teas and herbal tea. This site has a database of teas classified by brand, style, and region, with a wealth of information about different varieties of tea. On this site you can learn more about varieties of herbal tea, and both read and share reviews of pure herbs and herbal blends from various tea companies. RateTea's pages on each herb include discussion of the health and medicinal properties of these herbs as well.
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