Plants and herbs have been integrally linked to healing and therapy across cultures. Our forefathers have examined, experimented and internalised the use of a multitude of flora for various medicinal purposes. And they all unanimously attached special importance to the drinking of herbal teas, or tisanes, for treatment and well-being.
Tisanes are a potent infusion or decoction of dried leaves, roots, bark, seeds, fruits or flowers with hot water. Some herbs may be steeped in cold water too. Although tisanes are colloquially called herbal teas, they are not teas in the real sense. The term tea is reserved for drinks made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis family plants. Tisane, meanwhile, refers to the drink made from other plant varieties. They are also rightfully called herbal infusions because unlike actual teas they are caffeine-free drinks.
Reliable information about how the word tisane — pronounced tee-zan — came to be adopted is limited and varied. The Greeks used the word ptisanē initially to refer to a medicinal drink made from crushed barley grains steeped in water. Celebrated Greek physician Dioscorides who lived in the first century named more than 600 plant varieties that could be soaked in water to create a potent drink. Meanwhile, the French coined the word by deriving it from ti (tea) and sans (without) to mean ‘tea without tea’, essentially, any hot beverage without tea.
The benefits of herbal teas have also been chronicled in ancient Chinese as well as Egyptian texts. What’s more, herbal infusions and concoctions form the crucial basis for several treatments in the Indian medicinal system.
The Chinese love for herbs
The Chinese fascination for herbal teas is well-known and painstakingly recorded. In fact, they are an essential part of traditional Chinese medicine. A popular Chinese folklore that goes as far back as 2700 BC mentions a “divine peasant”, a man named Shennog, who discovered the delight of herbal infusions, delightfully by chance. Shennog was boiling hot water out of doors when a few leaves blew into the pot and created an alluring, aromatic drink. Mesmerised by the pleasantly invigorating beverage and encouraged by the many possibilities, Shennog went on to experiment with more such herbal infusions. He discovered the medicinal properties of hundreds of plants and herbs, which were later compiled in Shennong Ben Cao Jing (The Divine Farmer's Materia Medica Classic). A third-century medical book by Hua T’o, a Chinese doctor and herbalist, also mentions herbal infusions.
Tisanes are an intrinsic part of Chinese culture for their abilities to cure, boost and nurture the body. A popular Chinese concoction is the “leung cha”, or “cooling tea,” believed to cool down a feverish body due to ill health or climate change. Notable Chinese herbs include jasmine, mint, chrysanthemum, osmanthus, rose, goji berries, lavender, and licorice, among others.
Ayurvedic teas ‘steeped’ in goodness
In India, the knowledge and use of herbs are as old as the civilisation itself. The Vedic text Rigveda and even the Bhagavad Gita mentions ‘somras’, which translates as herbal juice. More of such herbal preparations soon found their way into its medicinal heritage.
Ayurveda, which translates as the science of life in Sanskrit, has prescribed various herbal concoctions as remedies for a number of ailments. The ubiquitous kadha and kashayam are among its many medicinal recipes that are widely consumed in India.
Ayurveda describes three elemental energies, or doshas — vata (air), pitta (fire) and kapha (water) — which are present in and affect every person’s body and mind. The predominance of one or two doshas determines the healing patterns in Ayurveda.
Ayurvedic drinks claim to provide a number of health benefits, such as boosting energy, increasing immunity, strengthening bones, relieving joint pains, aiding in weight loss and digestion, improving moods and sleep quality, and enhancing the overall sense of well-being. A combination of ayurvedic tisanes can be consumed to balance the negative effects of body doshas. Ashwagandha, brahmi, tulsi (basil), black pepper, cardamom, turmeric and ginger are some of the widely used ingredients in Ayurvedic tisanes.
Lush Vitality's Ananda Rasa combines the stress-relieving properties of ashwagandha and brahmi, along with chamomile, valerian root, lavender and cornflower, to reduce anxiety and promote relaxation. Drinking a cupful of this organic blend before bedtime helps you unwind and get a good night’s sleep.
What Egyptians liked
The Egyptians have mentioned chamomile tea as early as 1550 BC in a document, Ebers Papyrus. They used it during worship, to treat a variety of ailments and even to embalm their dead. This floral preparation is as popular today as then for its relaxing and soothing effects. Karkade, or hisbiscus tisane, is another beverage that originated in Egypt. Known for its sweet, cranberry-like flavour, it was consumed to stabilise body temperature and lower blood pressure. Contemporary research has revealed the presence of peppermint leaves in the famed Egyptian pyramids, built in 1000 BC. The use of peppermint for digestion is well-known.
Tea and tisanes became prized commodities and integral to European trade from 16th century onwards as Portugal and Britain imported them from China.
After the Boston Tea party of 1773, drinking tea was considered an unpatriotic act. So Americans took to drinking tisanes instead. Peppermint and dandelions became their herbs of choice.
During the Second World War, a tea-deprived world looked for suitable alternatives and zeroed in on rooibos (red bush), found only in South Africa. Also called red tea, it is rich in anti-oxidants but caffeine-free.
Sri Lanka’s paspanguwa, or five-portions, comprising pathpadagam (mollugo cerviana), katuwelbatu (solanum virginianum), koththamalli (coriander seed), thippili (long pepper), and inguru (ginger), is mixed with jaggery or palm sugar to relieve colds and fever.
A wide variety of tisanes are available to us thanks to the practices of multiple cultures and historical events. Awareness about tisanes has soared in recent times and with their many proclaimed benefits, the willingness to experiment and consume more so.
What the ancient Chinese discovered, the Indians practised and the Egyptians enjoyed, or it could be vice versa. Today, the world joins in.