In the US, it’s extremely common for people to walk into a shop asking after “a cup of tea” and then ask for Chamomile, Peppermint, or some blend of flowers and spices. What these customers actually want is a Tisane.
Tea : a shrub (Camellia sinensis of the family Theaceae, the tea family) cultivated especially in China, Japan, and the East Indies.
Tisane: an infusion (as of dried herbs) used as a beverage or for medicinal effects.
When I was growing up, I learned from colloquial usage that “tea” meant something like, “an aromatic beverage prepared from various plants by infusion with boiling water”. What I didn’t realize is that there is actually one plant (Camellia Sinensis) which is actually “tea”, and everything else is, technically, a “tisane”.
This topic has been covered in many places, and while it sounds like mere snobbery at first (and it can be!), I think that making the distinction between tea and tisane is more important than it appears for two reasons.
Firstly, true tea has a poor reputation for taste in the West and having accurate terminology makes it much easier for vendors to identify their product. Think how confusing it would be if people said, “wine” when they were referring to grapefruit juice. Perhaps that’s hyperbole but I think it’s pretty close to the truth. If you have a chance to drink a cup of tulsi-peppermint-licorice tisane and a cup of Si Ji Chun oolong side-by-side I think the difference will be dramatic. Both are delicious; but they have very unique qualities.
Secondly, there is the matter of health. If, while traveling to India or China, some poor traveler orders tea and then specifies a “caffeine-free” version, they are likely to be met with only confusion. Tea (even decaffeinated tea) always contains some caffeine, just as chocolate always does. Wanting a caffeine-free chocolate, the wise consider something else, like carob (which we usually don’t call “chocolate”, despite its similar properties). Conversely, there are several herbs which have known medicinal properties, but the healing properties of actual tea are much less specific and are still being studied.
So why do we like to use the terms interchangeably, particularly in US culture? I’m not really sure, but I think some of it began with the experience of the American colonies during the Revolutionary War. During that time, tea (actual tea) was a major staple of many people on both sides of the Atlantic, and taxation of its importation was symbolic of the control levied by England over the colonial citizens. The colonists were strongly inclined to find a substitute, and so invented what they called “freedom tea”, or “herbal tea”, which contained no tea but could be sourced locally without import fees. I believe that from that point onward the idea of “tea” and “herbal tea” became so conflated that each subsequent generation lost the ability to tell the difference.
In today’s quantity-over-quality global market, however, the heavy manual labor and precise skill required to produce real quality tea leaves is fading from disuse. Fortunately for us, there is a small revolution in artisan tea production that is slowly catching on. Companies like Camellia Sinensis, Stone Leaf Tea, Red Blossom, Song Tea, and White2Tea (just to name a few) are importing real quality leaf with a focus on education and tradition. Groups like Global Tea Hut are working to improve the tea market for organic farming and appropriate pay for artisan labor. I believe that keeping our terms straight and educating (compassionately) those who are uncertain is one of the best ways to honor this burgeoning movement.
So, be proud of your Chamomile! Enjoy your Rooibos! Slurp Yerba Mate by the gourd-full! But when the leaves of the Tea plant make their way to your cup, remember all the history that they represent and honor those who struggled against a global industry to bring them to you.