Yummy Herb Teas

Caffeine-free and healthy too!

Most people drink herbal teas-Europeans call them tisanes-because they want a tasty hot beverage that's caffeine-free. Should the tea have an added health-giving property, that's a nice bonus.

In my experience, most commercial herbal teas are blends of several herbs, but the dominant taste is usually a pungent botanical such as cinnamon, clove, peppermint, or orange peel. If the tea mixture contains one or more of these, don't expect to taste much else. Without such ingredients, teas often taste bland, so some companies spice them up a bit by adding a bit of a purified essential oil as a flavor enhancer.

There are, however, a number of less familiar single-herb teas that possess unique flavors. Some are commercially packaged, while others must be obtained in bulk from your local herb store or the Internet. One that seems to be practically unknown in the US, but which has always intrigued me, is linden flowers, the dried blossoms of various species, especially Tilia cordata and T. platyphyllos.
Lovely Linden's a Winner

Some years ago, four botanists, including famed expert Julia Morton, held a tasting of 10 herbal teas, ranging from bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) to yellow dock (Rumex crispus). All agreed that linden flower tea was the most agreeable, with an aroma of alfalfa or clover and a pleasant alfalfa or haylike flavor.

Linden flower tea has never been very popular in the US, probably because of the warnings in older writings about its possible toxicity. German research has now determined these warnings to be unfounded. Medicinally, the tea has long had the reputation of a diaphoretic, meaning that it induces sweating, which can help bring down a fever. Whether this is due to the herb itself or the hot water in which it is drunk is still up for debate. Linden flower tea is prepared from 1 teaspoon of the herb steeped for 5 to 10 minutes in a cup of hot water.
Some Sweet-Tart Pleasers

Another herbal beverage that has enjoyed off-and-on popularity in the US, but which remains South Africa's most popular hot drink, is red bush, or rooibos, tea. It consists of the sun-dried, needlelike leaves and small twigs of a large, cultivated shrub native to South Africa and known botanically as Aspalathus linearis.

Like the other herb teas discussed here, red bush tea is caffeine-free. It is also low in astringent (mouth-puckering) tannins. For many years, no particular health claims were made for the beverage, but recent studies indicate some antioxidant and even cancer-preventive potential. Drink it straight or with milk and sugar, according to taste. I like it best for its flavor, which is similar to black tea but slightly more acidic. The tea is made by adding a cup or so of boiling water to a teaspoon of leaves, then simmering in a covered vessel over a low flame for at least 5 minutes.

If you like a tea that is slightly tart in taste but pleasantly refreshing, you'll go for one made from hibiscus flowers (Hibiscus sabdariffa). The red flowers of this widely cultivated tropical plant are known by several other names, including roselle, Sudanese tea, and Jamaica sorrel. Hibiscus is often added in small quantities to various tea mixtures. Taken solo (1 teaspoon steeped in a cup of hot water for 5 minutes), this distinctive tea tastes delicious. Incidentally, it's also a great flavoring agent for various jams and jellies.

Preliminary studies have reported several potential health benefits for hibiscus, ranging from mild laxative and diuretic effects to an antibacterial action. But I think the jury's still out on its benefits, so I drink hibiscus tea just for its wonderful flavor.

A very popular tea mixture combines hibiscus flowers with rose hips, the false fruits of the dog rose (Rosa canina). Because of their vitamin C content combined with other plant acids, pectins, and some tannins, the hips make a flavorful, fruity, slightly acidic tea all on their own. A cup of boiling water is poured over a scant teaspoon of the crushed hips and allowed to steep for 10 to 15 minutes.

Rose hip tea is often touted for its vitamin C content. However, remember that actual C content will depend on the exact botanic source, time of collection, method of drying, length of storage, and similar factors. Drink rose hip tea if you like the taste, but don't depend on it alone for your daily allowance of vitamin C.
A Couple of Underrated Teas

I have always thought that a tea made from the leaves of stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) was a very underrated hot beverage. It has a natural sweetness combined with a nice herbal taste and fragrance that can be quite pleasant. Just be sure to start with a small amount of the leaves to make certain that your brew has a sweetness you find agreeable.

The tea prepared from an American Ephedra species (E. nevadensis) is known by several names, including Mormon tea, teamster's tea, squaw tea, and popotillo. Although widely used by frontiersmen for a variety of ailments, the tea lacks any significant therapeutic properties, because it doesn't contain any of the various ephedrine-type alkaloids (ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, norephedrine, etc.) found in the Chinese species of the plant. It does, however, have a refreshing astringent taste due to a high content of tannin, which some people find enjoyable.

These are just a sampling of the many herbs that make tasty, hot beverages. With a little experimentation, I'm sure you'll find one you'll enjoy. And all are caffeine-free, so they won't keep you awake at night.

PHOTO (COLOR): Sip this tasty antioxidant brew.

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By Varro E. Tyler, PhD, ScD and Toby Hanlon, EdD

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