Herbal tea is the backbone of herbal medicine. It is often one of the easiest ways to get herbs into your daily life, just by having a nice cup of delicious whatever in hot water as part of your routine.
However, not all herbal teas are prepared using the same method. In herbal medicine making we talk about infusions and decoctions; this article explains the difference, when to use each method, and provides a simple how-to. As always, I welcome your comments.
When Tea is the Right Choice
Solubility Tea is appropriate for herbs with water-soluble constituents. That means the medicine in the herbs comes out in water, as opposed to alcohol. All plants contain both alcohol- and water-soluble constituents; it’s just a matter of how the medicine you’re trying to use is best extracted. There’s a longer discussion of solubility in this article about making tinctures.
Any of the herbs you can name that are generally sold in commercial tea blends are high in water-soluble constituents, for example mint, hibiscus, chamomile, dandelion, and holy basil. Any herbs that are demulcent (gooey) when you taste them are high in water-soluble constituents, too, like violet, mullein, and borage. Also, food herbs such as nettles and burdock, are high in water-soluble constituents.
Healing Ritual For many people, the ritual of drinking tea plays a powerful role in healing and maintaining health. Tea as a medicinal form is a full sensory experience that can be extremely soothing. Most people take a nice, deep breath of that fragrant steam when they first lift the cup. That deep breath contributes to relaxation, which in turn promotes health and healing; as all the yoga folks will tell you, deep breathing engages the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing our bodies time to ruminate and heal from the hectic go-go-go of our cortisol-fueled lives. Additionally, taking the time to make and drink a cup of tea can be very grounding, a short break from our obligations and to-do lists. The ritual of tea-drinking is a powerful one that can’t be discounted in any discussion of tea.
Some health conditions can be better served by tea than by tinctures or capsules. People who use water-soluble herbs to help with anxiety find the aforementioned ritual of tea drinking very soothing, and it is a safe, reliable ritual to engage in (as opposed to the ritual of smoking cigarettes, for example). The same can be said of those who use herbs to enhance sleep: the tea itself is relaxing. For colds and flus, mothers everywhere soothe sore throats and rehydrate their children with herbs in hot water. The heat of tea is wonderfully soothing to belly aches. For folks concerned about chronic kidney stones or urinary tract infections, the more you pee the better off you are, so take your herbs in tea. The list goes on, but the point is to consider how fragrant, medicinal hot water can benefit your health when you are deciding how to take an herb.
Most importantly, make tea from herbs that taste good. No need to make yourself miserable.
An infusion is what most people think of when they think of making tea: hot water, herbs, done. We make infusions of delicate plant parts like leaves and flowers. Common examples of herbs to infuse include chamomile and mint. Many people who use tea as part of their daily health routine like to make a large amount at night or in the morning to take to work or school with them. To do this, use 2 quart jars to make your infusion and allow it to cool before refrigerating.
To make an infusion, boil water in your kettle. If you have hard water or city water I recommend using filtered water in your kettle, but this isn’t strictly necessary.
While the water boils, prepare your leaves and flowers. To release the fragrance and increase surface area for the water to do its thing, crush dried plant parts between your hands or chop fresh plant parts. Use 1 to 2 Tablespoons of dried herbs or 2 to 4 Tablespoons of fresh herbs per cup of water, adjusted for personal taste and the strength of the herbs. Put the herbs in a teapot, mug, or reusable muslin teabag.
Pour boiling water over herbs. Cover and allow to infuse until cool enough to drink; the longer it infuses, the better the medicine will be. Strain or drink through a bombilla.
A decoction is when herbs are simmered in the water, as opposed to having water poured over them. Decoctions are used to make tea from denser, tougher plant parts. These include roots, barks, fruits, and seeds. Common examples of herbs to decoct include ginger, burdock, fennel, elderberry, and black birch. Just as with infusions, you can make larger quantities ahead of time and refrigerate them.
To make a decoction bring water to a simmer in a small saucepan. You want to add a little extra for evaporation, so for example if you want 2 cups of tea you’ll use about 18 oz water. Again, filtered water is very nice for those of us who have hard water or city water.
Chop or grate fresh herbs. Dried herbs do not need further prep. Use 1 to 2 Tablespoons of dried herbs or 2 to 4 Tablespoons of fresh herbs per cup of water, adjusted for personal taste and the strength of the herbs.
Add the herbs to the simmering water, reduce heat, and cover. Allow herbs to decoct until the room is fragrant and your tea is a rich, dark color, 10-20 minutes. Be careful not to burn decoctions or you’ll have to start over due to unavoidable grossness.
Allow your decoction to cool to non-tongue destroying temperatures, then strain and enjoy.
Coming soon: an article on drying and storing your own tea herbs