The world’s first cup of tea was a fluke. Emperor Shen Nung sat beneath a Camellia sinensis shrub on a windy day in 2737 B.C., and when he looked down into his boiling water after a particularly hearty gust, he noticed that several leaves had blown in, creating a home-grown infusion—or so the story goes.
“It’s a bit of folklore,” says Emily Erb, cofounder of Leaves & Flowers, a California-based company that produces small batch teas. “There are a lot of myths about where tea originated.”
Tisanes—a catchall term for tea-like brews from sources other than Camellia sinensis (including herbs and edible flowers)—have an equally murky origin story. Multiple languages offer possible etymological provenance: It’s said by some that the term comes from the French words for “tea” (ti) and “without” (sans); others believe it stems from the Greek word ptisanē, which is a steeped beverage from crushed pearl barley.
“For botanical infusions, I think the start was really for medicinal purposes—there are so many antioxidants,” says Erb. “When you travel around overseas, a lot of people will mention that they grew up drinking herbs—if they were sick, their grandma would throw all these herbs into a pot. Every country has their own signature blend if you’re not feeling well.”
Read on for Erb’s advice for how home gardeners can turn botanicals into delicious and soothing tisanes.
Photography by Aya Brackett for Gardenista.
Mint for Beginners
Erb suggests using an easy-to-cultivate herb, such as mint, as a jumping off point.
“Mint is a great herb to start with for a home gardener because it grows really easily,” says Erb. “There are so many types of mint, and you can get lots of variations. Chocolate mint is wonderful for tea, it has a natural sweetness. Bergamot mint is brighter and has an almost spicy quality to it.”
See our guide to 9 Favorite Mints for a primer on the different types you can grow easily in a home garden.
To brew a tisane from fresh mint, snip a few stalks from the garden, give them a thorough rinse to get rid of residual soil or bugs, and steep the leaves and stems in a pot of hot water for two to five minutes, depending on your desired strength. Erb recommends steeping right when the water boils, at around 212 degrees Fahrenheit or 100 degrees Celsius.
Fresh Herbs for Potency
“We really recommend using fresh herbs if you can—they’re more potent, and they’re vibrant because they’re alive,” says Erb. “Dry some to tide you over until the next growing season.”
The flavor of botanical ingredients will change as they dry out, so be sure to taste the dried blend as you’re creating an infusion. “If you make up a blend that’s fresh and try to replicate it with the dried components, it will have a different taste,” says Erb. “The difference I really notice between fresh and dried mint is that the flavor can mellow out and have more roundness when it’s dried. Chamomile can be used either fresh or dried, and it’s lovely both ways.”
Rose and chrysanthemum can be brewed fresh or dried as well. One flower Erb suggests using only for a fresh tisane is jasmine, which loses its flavor when dried.
Stems and Leaves?
Erb encourages home gardeners to use all parts of herbs in an infusion.
“With most fresh herbs, you can use both the stems and the leaves,” says Erb. “Lemon verbena is an exception, where if your plant is more mature, it can get pretty woody.” If that’s the case, she says, skip the stems.
After an herb starts to flower at the end of its growth cycle, she says, it can affect the flavor a bit, but generally it’s a very subtle change. “If you’re wanting to dry your herbs because you can’t use them all fresh, that would be a good time to pick them.”
Erb recommends drying your botanical ingredients in little bunches to create “single serving” tisane batches. “Don’t make the bundles too big!” she warns. “If you do, the pieces in the middle are not going to dry out, and they can start to mold.”
Take your bunches, and hang or place them somewhere dry with airflow, indirect sunlight, and limited humidity. In the Leaves & Flowers space, Erb and her partner Anna Morton lay out their fresh ingredients on perforated sheets to dry.
“We recommend avoiding direct sunlight—it can kind of zap the herbs. You don’t want them to bake, because you can lose some flavor if they get overheated.”
To check if your bunches are fully dry, test the stems, which tend to take longer than the leaves to fully dry out: If the stems snap easily, you’re ready to go. Herbs like mint will take about a week to dry, whereas naturally drier plants like lemon verbena might take four or five days.
A Better Way to Blend
When it comes to creating blends, Erb suggests keeping it simple and seeking out complementary flavors, such as mint and lemon verbena. Add in accoutrements such as citrus peel, ginger, turmeric root, spices, and toasted grains to round out your blends.
“The way we think about a new blend is to start with one focal ingredient,” she says. “If you’re using peppermint and want that to be the predominant flavor, add in other ingredients in lesser quantity that the peppermint. Taste as you go.”
Erb encourages home gardeners to experiment with pairings. “If you have access to herbs and flowers that you grow, play around with different combinations and see what you like. You can be really surprised,” she says. “Sometimes we try a crazy blend like chamomile and cinnamon and we think it’s going to be really weird, and we try it and it’s amazing!”
Shop Your Full Garden
A broad swath of botanicals found in home gardens can be used for tisanes. In addition to the classics—mint, chamomile, lemon verbena, lavender, and rose—many other common garden inhabitants make for a good brew. Leaves & Flowers uses ingredients such as lemongrass, hibiscus flower, catnip, skullcap, and passionflower to make tisanes.
“I love culinary herbs in tea,” says Erb. “Thyme is really beautiful, and rosemary can be lovely. Start off growing a bit of each and playing with different ones.” The Flower Sun Blend from Leaves & Flowers features sage, tarragon, and thyme ($17.50 for a one-ounce package).
Erb also suggests anise hyssop, which can be steeped with its purple flowers. Leaves & Flowers’ Ajna Blend pairs anise hyssop with tulsi and lavender ($17 for a package that brews from 20 to 22 cups).
The Power of Plants
Tap into the roots of tisanes and seek out different herbal blends for their restorative powers.
Calendula, or pot marigold, is a flower that Erb touts for its an anti-inflammatory properties. “Blend it with other herbs to balance out its tannic qualities—and don’t steep it for too long, it can be quite bitter,” she says. Turmeric is also a great herb to relieve inflammation, she says. Leaves & Flowers’ Turmeric Wellness tisane mixes the root with rosemary, citrus peel, ginger, and black pepper ($17 for a three-ounce package).
Erb recommends catnip and skullcap for their relaxing properties. When brewing skullcap at home, Erb suggests pairing it with spearmint or peppermint rather than drinking it on its own.
Seeds can aid with digestion, she says. “Our Digestive Seed Tea was developed based on Ayurvedic tradition. It’s really good with or after a meal.” The tisane comprises fennel, anise, cardamom, cumin, and ginger.