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
WILD TEAS AND TONICS
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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Update: June 2012