Text by Bruce Richardson • Photograph by William Dickey
During the months leading up to the 1773 Boston Tea Party, Massachusetts homemakers faced a dilemma as they vowed not to buy tea imported through the British East India Company. Every home had a teapot, and colonists were used to the comfort a hot beverage brought to a cold New England morning. What could replace their beloved Chinese teas?
Desperate tea drinkers searched their gardens and orchards for suitable herbs and fruits to fill their pots. Rebellious citizens called these home brews “liberty teas,” which they steeped in their aptly named “liberty teapots.”
The mint family proved popular—both spearmint and peppermint—as were orange bergamot, catnip, and pennyroyal. Leaves of raspberry and strawberry, lemon balm, verbena, and wintergreen were also favorite infusions. From their flower gardens came aromatic and colorful blends of blossoms of linden, elder, red clover, chamomile, violet, and goldenrod. Other flavorings came from tree barks, like sassafras and willow, or the seeds of fennel and dill. Fruits included dried strawberries, blueberries, or apples, sometimes enhanced with rose hips.
Many of these botanicals are finding their way into American teapots again as health-conscious consumers look for alternative beverages. Whether you call them botanicals, tisanes, or herbals, plant-based ingredients are not true teas, but they are filling more space on tea shelves in groceries and gourmet markets. Here are seven popular botanicals to look for as you shop for tea:
You already know the flavor of these Indian seed pods if you are a fan of Masala Chai. Citrusy, minty, spicy, and herbal, this highly fragrant spice complements other blending ingredients such as cinnamon, clove, or ginger.
This dried flower blossom is a natural sedative and was a standard natural medicine stocked by pharmacists a century ago. Look for it in sleep-inducing teas.
These North American berries add a tart flavor and deep color to fruit blends. Like green tea, they are an excellent source of antioxidants. Black elderberry extracts are known to reduce the severity and length of influenza.
This grated rhizome makes the perfect after-dinner digestif because it settles the stomach, making it a favorite caffeine-free beverage for expectant mothers. It also has anti-inflammatory properties.
This dried flower blossom is commercially grown in the Nile region of Sudan. It contains citric acid and is a natural source for vitamin C. Because of its tartness, hibiscus is used in many fruit blends to balance sweeter ingredients, such as dried apples or strawberries.
Throughout North Africa, glasses of hot Chinese green tea infused with sprigs of mint and copious amounts of sugar are offered to every guest who enters a home or business. Both spearmint and peppermint are calming aromatics used in many herbal or tea blends.
This rhizome is related to ginger and contains curcumin, a compound known to be a natural anti-inflammatory. Turmeric has been prescribed in Asian medicine for thousands of years to decrease inflammation and pain due to arthritis.
Are you curious to know what new botanicals are on the horizon for new tea blends? Look for dried cucumbers, tomatoes, and carrots. What could be healthier than sipping vegetables from your teacup.
TeaTime contributing editor Bruce Richardson is Master Tea Blender at Kentucky’s Elmwood Inn Fine Teas and coauthor of The New Tea Companion.