Teas or Tisanes?


Real tea plant not some herbal shitI suppose it’s crotchety of me, but whenever I hear the term “herbal tea” used to refer to an infusion of leaves or fruits that contains no actual tea, I get shirty.

They’re actually not tea at all, they’re tisanes, a pleasant French word that means’herbal infusion.’ They should be called such and labelled appropriately in stores.

Tea is, properly a plant originally from China: Camellia sinensis. How the word came to be used as a descriptor for any hot drink in which leaves were infused or decocted, I don’t know, but it’s lazy language; misleading and dishonest.*

Tea drink is, of course, an infusion, but not all infusions are tea. If it doesn’t contain actual tea leaves, it should not be called a tea. Period.

The original word tea itself (te and its Cantonese equivalent, cha) have specifically meant Camelia sinensis in China since at least the eighth century CE. That’s what they meant when European traders started bringing the stuff back. The Online Etymological Dictionary explains some of its European use from the 16th century:

The distribution of the different forms of the word in Europe reflects the spread of use of the beverage. The modern English form, along with French thé, Spanish te, German Tee, etc., derive via Dutch thee from the Amoy form, reflecting the role of the Dutch as the chief importers of the leaves (through the Dutch East India Company, from 1610). Meanwhile, Russian chai, Persian cha, Greek tsai, Arabic shay, and Turkish çay all came overland from the Mandarin form.
First known in Paris 1635, the practice of drinking tea was first introduced to England 1644. Meaning “afternoon meal at which tea is served” is from 1738. Slang meaning “marijuana” (which sometimes was brewed in hot water) is attested from 1935, felt as obsolete by late 1960s. Tea ball is from 1895.

“Herbal tea” might be derived from the Latin: herba thea means “tea herb”(LAtin was still more-or-less a living language in the 16th century) or maybe it, too, came via the Dutch traders: herba thee (which also means tea herb). Either way, we ended up with “herbal tea.”

Whatever its origin, it is incorrect. It’s like pointing to a dandelion and calling it a rose garden because they’re both plants. Or handing someone a cola and calling it a cold coffee because they both have caffeine. The only thing tea and tisanes have in common is the hot water.

Why aren’t these non-tea infusions called “herbal coffees” of “herbal colas”? That would make as much sense as calling them herbal teas.

It’s not like there’s any physical or taste resemblance between, say, rosehips and tea, or chamomile and tea. They aren’t even processed in similar manners. Most herbal infusions are simply dried (rooibos being the sole exception I know of, but it, too, is a tisane, not a proper tea).

Wikipedia notes that

In many countries, the word ‘tea’ can only be used for leaves of Camellia sinensis and therefore the phrase ‘herbal tea’ cannot be used. These beverages are therefore labelled infusion or tisane.

I’m anxious to know which countries those are, since they seem remarkable for their linguistic common sense. Perhaps it’s their no-silliness attitude towards food that makes them demand truthful labels for products. Whatever the reason, Canada should adopt their attitudes.

There are real, herbal teas: a very few teas include both camellia sinensis and other plant products, such as jasmine. But Earl grey – which includes oil of bergamot – is not a “herbal” tea because it lacks a herb, which is by definition, the “… the leafy green parts of a plant (either fresh or dried).” Orange teas (camellia sinensis and orange peel or flavouring), on the other hand, are more properly called “spice” teas because spice is “a product from another part of the plant (usually dried), including seeds, berries, bark, roots and fruits.”

But beware: several of the products advertising themselves as orange or citrus teas are again mere infusions without any real tea. This is why it’s important to have correct labels on products. Consumers deserve to know what’s in their food.

Tisane, the Online Etymological Dictionary tells us, is a fairly recent usage and an example of English once again borrowing from another language to fill in the gaps:

…medicinal tea, 1931, from French tisane; earlier ptisan (14c.), from Latin ptisana, from Greek ptisane “crushed barley,” related to ptissein “to winnow, crush, peel” (see pestle).

However, outside of a few books on tea – mostly published in Europe – I haven’t come across the word tisane in print, nor have I heard it spoken even in tea shops where you’d expect them to know it.


* Infusions are made by pouring very hot – generally not boiling – water over the leaves and letting them steep. Decoctions are made by boiling the water and leaves together for some time, reducing the water by evaporation before serving.

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  1. Pingback: A cup of mao jian | Scripturient

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