Previous in series: O’Clock, Proprietary, and Royal Teas
Tea is the name for the plant Camellia sinensis and for the plucked and dried leaf it yields, and for the infusion made from that leaf and none other. Since language cannot be legislated, “tea” has also been a slang term for marijuana and used occasionally as a substitute for the word “extract,” as in “beef tea” for example. It bears repeating however, that tea is the beverage made from the leaves of the tea plant and can no more come from any other plant than it can from the flesh of cattle. Tea is tea. An herbal infusion is something else entirely and properly speaking should not be called a tea at all. Just what to call one has been the subject of ongoing negotiations between the Tea Council of the United States and the herbals industry since 1980 at least, but in the light of progress to date we are entitled to ask: If herbal beverages are not teas, what are they?
In France herbal drinks, which are far more popular there than the, are called tisanes, as good a word as any for them and one we might do well to resurrect in English. Tisane derives from Greek, via the Latin ptisana, and anciently referred to a drink made from husked barley that R. Gordon Wasson and other scholars consider the psychotropic secret behind the mysteries of Eleusis. Alternative names seem pedestrian in contrast. A decoction means anything that’s boiled in contrast to an infusion, which is made by merely steeping the ingredients. Tinctures and elixirs are defined as extractions using or containing alcohol, which lets them out, and a tonic is any old pick-me-up. You can see why tisane gets my vote as the best word for herbal beverages.
Whatever name they go by, herbals are not to be taken lightly. Some, like yerba mate, contain more caffeine than coffee. Also, as Dr. R. K. Siegel of the University of California School of Medicine, Los Angeles, has written: “There are at least 396 herbs and spices available commercially for use in herb tea, and some of them contain psychoactive substances capable of producing intoxicating effect.” More specifically he found that “forty-two of these herbs contain mind-altering agents, although behavioral effects are not seen in short-term use.” In most instances, I’m sure, this is much ado about nothing. Decoctions have been made from the benign and flavorful bark of the sassafras for centuries and it’s still available everywhere despite the federal government’s having banned its use in 1960. It’s no doubt true that staggering quantities of sassafras would do something to you – who knows what – but then what would not? On the other hand, brew up a beverage from mistletoe and it’s a clinical certainty that you can kill erstwhile friends and lovers with it. Wolfbane works even quicker, but then with good luck or ill you’re bound to find somebody deathly allergic to chamomile, too.
The history of herbs and spices is far more ancient than that of tea, even, and I touch on the matter not for toxicology’s sake but to distinguish between tea, which is what it is, and everything else which, whatever it is, ain’t tea.