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Wild Teas and Tonics
Nature Bulletin No. 489-A   April 14, 1973
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Originally tea was tea -- a pleasant bracing drink made by steeping the cured leaves of the oriental tea shrub in hot water. Later the word came to include beverages made from the flowers, fruits, seeds, stems, leaves, bark or roots of a wide variety of plants. Almost any plant with fragrant or mildly medicinal properties has been used for tea by someone.

The Indians had traditional systems combining cookery, medicine and magic in which certain plant brews were prescribed for almost every ceremony, physical ailment or mental disturbance. The different tribes often did not agree on which tea was best for what purpose but the early settlers borrowed many beverages and remedies from the red men.

In pioneer times when doctors, medicines and money were scarce, some of those home remedies -- such as the bitter brews of boneset leaves, willow bark or aspen bark -- may have been beneficial in certain kinds of fever. A long list of plant teas -- some palatable, some nauseous -- were used in various communities as laxatives or for stomach-aches and other complaints. Confidence in their value may have given some psychological benefits but, in recent times, most of these panaceas have lost standing with the medical profession.

Perhaps some familiar to us, at least by hearsay, are the old-time spring tonics drunk "to purify and thin the blood" or improve the appetite. The most enjoyable of these, whether it thins the blood or not, is the fragrant orange-colored tea made by simmering the bark of sassafras roots. Tonics brewed from wormwood seed, the leaves and twigs of spicebush or prickly ash, and yarrow leaves, tasted too much like bitter medicine. Basswood flowers, red clover blossoms, wild ginger roots and chamomile leaves were dried to make enjoyable teas and tonics. Several mints were used, either dried or fresh: peppermint, spearmint, catnip, horehound, pennyroyal, and Oswego tea or mountain mint. Hops, sage, parsley and tansy were cultivated for tonic drinks and seasoning.

During the American Revolution when real tea, obtained from England, was unavailable and banned as unpatriotic, the cured leaves of our native shrub called New Jersey tea were in great demand as a substitute. Similarly, during the Civil War, coffee was so scarce and costly in both the North and the South that coffee-colored hot beverages were made from parched acorns, grains and the like. Among the most widely used substitutes or adulterants for coffee -- still popular in some southern regions -- were the dried and roasted roots of the blue flowered chicory which has become so common on our roadsides.

Of all the plants cultivated for hot beverages, only three have remained popular throughout the civilized world: tea, coffee, and cacao from which cocoa and chocolate are made. People drink them because of the refreshing and stimulating caffeine and similar substances they contain.

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