When you lean in and take those first deep breaths after preparing a cup of tea, you are tuning your senses to the energy and fragrance of nourishing botanicals.
Humans in just about every civilization worldwide have experienced that moment of bliss, hovering over a cup of herbal tea. We physically and emotionally respond to the chemistry of botanicals, and so did our ancestors — the joy and familiarity of drinking herbal tea is embedded in the fabric of our genes and cultures. The human body evolved along with a vast botanical pharmacy, and herbal teas were among humanity’s first medicines. When we commune with herbs in the pure form of tea, we participate in a long legacy of relationship between humans and nature in all its glorious complexity.
Making and drinking herbal teas for comfort and health is an ancient tradition that anyone can learn. It is both sensual and intuitive, a thoughtful process in which we look, smell, touch, and taste the herbs. As we develop our sensual palate, the flavors, texture, and fragrance of an herb begin to tell us a story of its remedial properties.
The Power of Plants
Plants connect with myriad other organisms through their root systems, leaves, flowers, and seeds. These connections increase their resistance to disease, aid in pollination and seed dispersal, and help increase nutrient uptake. Plants also create special chemical compounds to communicate with other organisms in their vicinity, exchanging information about the constantly fluctuating conditions in the environment. With their above- and below-ground connections they are able to thrive and help a diversity of others thrive as well. Mutually beneficial partnerships are what create stability and resilience in the landscape.
Like plants, our bodies need to be part of an interconnected community, too. Our physical and emotional health depends on knowing and communicating with our environment. Herbal teas — simple infusions of healing herbs in water — offer a daily reminder of our place in nature and open our hearts and minds to the ways in which plants can realign us.
We rely deeply on the plant kingdom for nourishment, medicine, oxygen, ecological stability, and clean drinking water. By learning to observe, tend, and use healing plants, we gain insight into their ecological roles both inside our bodies and out in the landscapes from which we harvest them. No special genius is needed, just interest and attention.
Learning from Those Who Came Before
Direct relationships with a landscape shape the needs of the people who depend on that landscape for food and medicine. And, in turn, the actions of the people shape the needs of the landscape. If we look closely, we all participate in a cycle of reciprocity. The landscape draws us in and begs us to learn how to tend her; in exchange we are given long-term access to some of nature’s most healing and profoundly comforting plants. We can learn to modify our actions to meet the needs of our place and let the abundance of where we live fulfill us physically and emotionally.
Before centuries of colonialism, indigenous communities naturally embraced the patterns of nature in order to survive; they knew how to use their regions’ biodiversity to find nourishment, maintain health, and treat imbalances. By our standards, since every member of society was fluent in the language of plants and could generally manage their own health, everyone would have had the basic skills of an herbalist. Food and medicine were intricately connected to place.
Indigenous communities inhabited the Puget Sound long before my family moved here. The unique range of native edible and medicinal species evolved alongside these people, and the techniques they developed for tending the diverse ecosystems of the Puget Sound are part of a rich cultural heritage. Therefore, when I am out wildcrafting herbs and fruits for teas, I am practicing an ancient skill that indigenous cultures in my area have performed for thousands of years. Although my goal is to honor life and be part of a community that appreciates and supports all the local biodiversity, my opportunities are shaped by a history of colonialism, land-use choices, and a culture of entitlement. I must work to create a new culture that ensures a different legacy for this place I love.
Those of us who are not indigenous and feel spiritually shallow (or hungry) often admire the earth-based spiritual practices of indigenous peoples. It might seem enticing to identify and cloak ourselves with the teachings of these cultures to compensate for our own feelings of emptiness and grief from being part of a culture that prides itself in ecological dominance. But we must learn to teach ourselves new ways to heal the wounds of our violent history, while honoring but not appropriating indigenous culture.
As I learn skills that enable me to become an herbalist and land steward, I try to be mindful of the indigenous roots of these skills. Part of learning about a place is grappling with its uncomfortable history and not ignoring it. But there are many ways to nurture our people and the earth, and time spent loving nature and connecting to plants will naturally bring those ways to light.
A Philosophy of Place and Healing
Herbal foods and teas can teach us how to nurture both our internal and external environments. In the four years I have owned Harbor Herbalist and Bird’s Eye Tea I have witnessed dramatic positive changes in the herbal tea community where I live. Most of my customers reside in the Puget Sound area where cool, damp winters make way for the lush, foliated landscapes of summer. The beauty and uneven terrain of the Puget Sound seem to instill a fondness for innovation, creativity, and adaptability in our cultural identity. We enjoy a healthy seasonal balance of introspection and outdoor activity. An awareness and appreciation for our special ecology give support to a robust network of local seafood and farms. There is a growing community with a desire to become part of a more sustainable culture that builds strong bonds between local organic producers and consumers.
Herbal teas fall at the intersection of food, nature, and medicine, and I feel blessed to be able to create blends that both heal and highlight the incredible biodiversity of the place where I have spent almost my entire life. My work is influenced by the ingenuity and artistry of regional cooking traditions, and I have always believed that the most effective herbal remedies are those that nourish depleted organ systems and offer daily support. The selections of teas I make for farmers’ markets are designed for and influenced by the energy of the seasons where I live — and are also tasty enough for people to adopt as healthy habits.
Making and using your own teas (from locally available sources, when possible) can have a positive impact on the environment and reduce your reliance on pharmaceutical drugs. If you decide to start your own tea garden or get out into nature to gather herbs, you will surely have a pleasant time getting to know the landscape. Whether exploring a woodland forest for nettles in early spring or relaxing in your own backyard apothecary, you are providing yourself an opportunity to become more at home in your region.
The practice of drinking herbal teas to support wellness connects you to your little spot in the world, but it also empowers you to participate in and own your health. Despite what the media tells you, we are all capable of responsibly caring for ourselves and our place through our lived experience. Like the rest of nature, our bodies are incredibly intuitive and designed to heal themselves, but we experience many moments of fear and discomfort when we stretch ourselves too thin, which causes physiological imbalances. Tea can provide the beauty, motivation, and direct therapeutic support that the body needs to shift its focus back toward healing and balance on physical, emotional, and energetic levels.
Herbal tea is a daily celebration of life, and it reminds us how lucky we are to be part of the earth’s natural cycles. A cup of tea is a form of communion, a coming home.
The Art of Tea Blending