This article was first published
in 1985 in 'The Watched Pot', a quarterly publication produced by the
culinary guild of a local historical reenactment group.
This article compares a selection
of herbs which were used as medicinal teas in both Western Europe and
Asia during the medieval period. I have included personal notes
regarding color, smell and taste comparisons on those herbs which
were available to me at the time that I wrote this article.
This article is not intended as
medical advice. Please consult your doctor before trying these teas
if you are pregnant or have significant health issues, or if you are
taking medication that may react to any these herbs, singularly or in
According to Chinese legend, tea
was discovered by Emperor Shen Nung in about the year 273 BC. Shen
Nung believed that people who boiled their drinking water remained
healthier than those who did not. One day, while the Emperor's water
was boiling, a breeze blew some leaves from a nearby camellia tree
into the pot. Shen Nung found that the leaves added taste and aroma
to his boiling water. He later found that he was more alert during
his contemplations whenever he drank the water from the boiled
leaves. From that discovery, tea became an integral part of Chinese
also known as Bird's Foot, is one of the oldest of the medicinal
herbs. Introduced to Europe by Benedictine monks, it was promoted by
Charlemagne in the 9th century, and cultivated in England by the 10th
century. It was used in Europe to treat colds and fever, and was
considered by some to be an aphrodisiac.
was known as Hi-la-pa in China, where it was introduced from the West
during the T'ang Dynasty (7th - 9th centuries CE). It has been used
as a medicinal since that time. Chinese herbalists treat bladder
infections with 3-4 cups of Fenugreek tea per day while symptoms
Fenugreek tea by infusing the leaves in boiling water. A decoction
can be made by boiling 1 tsp. of the seeds in 1 cup of water until
they are tender (about 5 minutes). Cover and steep the seeds for an
additional 15 minutes. Tea made from the seeds has a rich, saffron
Mugwort is regarded as one of the ancient magical plants. Respected throughout medieval Europe and Asia, it was known as “Mother of Herbs”. Mugwort was thought to dissolve gallstones and regulate the menses. It was also valued for the treatment of epileptic fits and fevers. In the Middle Ages, it was called St. John's Plant because John the Baptist was believed to have worn a belt of it in the wilderness. This legend may have brought travelers to believe that wearing a sprig of the herb would protect them from fatigue, wild beasts and evil spirits. Mugwort was also a favorite beverage in England before the introduction of Chinese tea.
Aiye was gathered at the Dragon Boat Festival (on the 5th day
of the 5th moon) and was hung on the front doors of homes as a charm
against evil influences. Mugwort has been employed extensively in
Chinese medicine. Two tablespoons of the tea was prescribed 3-4 times
a day as a tonic and calmative. Mugwort tea was considered a
brain tonic and was thought to be helpful in treating sleepwalking.
It was also used to relieve pain and to stop bleeding.
- Prepare Mugwort tea by infusing 1 ounce of leaves and flower tops in 1 pint of boiling water. It is said to have a tangy taste, though I cannot verify this firsthand.
Flag is another herb that was thought to be an ancient magical plant.
It is also known as sedge, sweet myrtle and calamus. It is thought
that the Mongolians introduced Sweet Flag to Russia in the 10th
century, and brought it to Poland two centuries later. It was used in
England in the 16th century as an aromatic stimulant, to increase the
appetite and to aid digestion.
called this herb Shui-ch'ang-p'u, and hung it on the doors of their
homes on the New Year to destroy evil influences. It was also used in
China to treat heartburn.
- Prepare Sweet
Flag tea by infusing 1 ounce of powdered root in 10 ounces of boiling
water. Take 2 ounce doses, 2-3 times a day.
Rosemary ---is missing text --- European
legend claims that when the Virgin Mary hung her cloak over a bush of
white blossoms, they turned blue in remembrance, hence the folk name
of "Mary's Mantle." In the Middle Ages, rosemary was one of
the herbs which was used to ward off the bubonic plague. The tea was
drunk in the 16th century to prevent diseases from entering the body.
It was thought to stimulate the heart and act as a restorative and
diuretic. A tea of rosemary, sage and lavender was used to treat
colds, headaches and hysterical depression.
brought to China from Rome during the Wei Dynasty (3rd cen. BCE)
where it was called Mi-tieh-hsiang. The tea was prepared with a pinch
of ginger, and was drunk in 1 cup doses, 3-4 times a day as an
- To prepare
Rosemary for the treatment of nervous headache, infuse 1/2 teaspoon
each of Rosemary, Sage and Peppermint in 1 cup of water. Cover and
steep for 5 minutes, strain and drink a cup every 1-2 hours.
I found that Rosemary tea by itself was nearly colorless, very aromatic with a hint of pine to the taste. Both leaves and flowers can be infused for tea, the leaves will make a stronger brew.
CAUTION: Excessive use of Rosemary can cause abortions and convulsions.
has been steeped in mystery and superstition for several centuries.
In Europe it was known as Tartar Root, Ninsin, Seng and Red Berry. It
was thought to be a memory aid and stimulant by most, and an
aphrodisiac by a few. A cup of ginseng tea was taken before meals as
a tonic and stimulant for digestive problems caused by mental and
nervous exhaustion. A 1/2 ounce piece of root boiled in tea each
morning was also thought to remedy consumption.
called it Jenshen, which means "man root" because of its
shape. It has been used as a tonic and heal-all in China since 3,000
BCE. Ginseng was thought to be useful in the treatment of male
impotence because it increased hormone production in the endocrine
gland, which restored healthy function in a slow and gradual way,
rather than acting as the stimulant and aphrodisiac that Westerners
It is still used to treat fatigue, nervous disorders and the
complaints of old age. A small amount of the powdered root added to
other herbal teas may decrease symptoms of hay fever and similar
allergies. Ginseng tea may also help to regulate temperature
imbalances due to hot weather or menopause.
- Prepare Ginseng tea by boiling a whole root in 1 quart of water in a closed, non-metal double boiler for 2 - 3 hours. Strain and drink immediately. There is also a powdered root available which may be the “instant tea” version. Ginseng tea tastes acrid like parsnip, and impressed me as being an acquired taste. It is somewhat more palatable when sweetened.
Ginger was imported by the
Spanish from Jamaica in the mid-16th century. It is
native to Asia, and is among the top ranking botanicals in China,
where it is known as Chiang.
There are a number of recipes for ginger
teas. One ounce of the powdered root, stirred into 1 pint of boiling
water, taken in a dose of 2-3 tablespoons 3 times a day, is claimed
to remedy loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting. A pinch of powdered
ginger added to other teas is also said to relieve nausea. One or two
cups of hot ginger tea is thought to be good for an upset stomach
caused by hangover.
A cup of ginger tea 3-4 times a day is also used
to relieve menstrual cramps and discomfort, (although I remember this
tea making matters worse when my grandmother made me drink it). A
cold remedy tea can be prepared by putting 1/2 teaspoon powdered
Ginger, a handful of dried mint leaves and a handful of dried
strawberry leaves into a porcelain teapot and steeping for 10
minutes. I did like this tea, even with the ginger in it, and found
it very helpful in chasing away the chills.
been referenced in several English herbals from the 10th-15th
centuries, and has been cultivated in England since at least 1540.
Field laborers in 12th century Europe used wild garlic to combat heat
exhaustion. Drinking tea made from the bruised bulbs before and after
meals was also thought to be useful in the treatment of epilepsy.
legend, Sasuan was discovered in ancient China by Emperor Huang-ti.
While on a mountain climbing expedition, some of the emperor's
companions ate the leaves of a poisonous plant. Huang-ti forced them
to eat the wild Garlic that was growing nearby, and saved their
lives. It became a cultivated plant shortly after that. Garlic was
used to treat hypertension and high blood pressure, except in those
cases where it was caused by kidney disease.
Garlic by infusing 2 - 4 freshly chopped cloves in 1 quart of boiling
water. If you are treating a bad cold, drink 1cup every hour, or 1
cup 3-4 times a day if your cold is less severe.
been cultivated for centuries in England, France and Germany. It was
administered for fevers and was believed to calm nerves, alleviate
headaches and sooth a sore throat. Sage tea was also thought to slow
the aging process and enhance memory.
Chinese, Shu-wei-ts'ao was an ancient symbol of wisdom. It was so
revered that they would give Dutch traders 2-3 times the weight in
China Black Tea for the pungent herb. It was highly valued as a
stimulant tonic for stomach and nervous disorders, and for the
treatment of typhoid fever and lung hemorrhage.
Sage tea has
become one of my favorite winter teas, with its smoky aroma, deep
green color and a body similar to nettle.
- Infuse the leaves and tops
in boiling water and steep in a closed pot for 10 minutes and strain.
To treat a sore throat and mild laryngitis, infuse 2 ounces of sage
in 1 quart of boiling water, cover and let stand for 2 hours. Strain,
add 1 tablespoon honey and 1 tablespoon vinegar, and use as a gargle.
I have tried this and found it to be fairly effective in soothing
- As a kidney tonic, infuse 1/2
ounce of Sage and 1/2 ounce of peppermint in 1 pint of boiling water.
Let stand until cold and drink 1 cup 2-3 times a day.
- Sage tea with a bruised clove of garlic and a pinch of powdered ginseng is said to relieve depression. The fumes from Sage tea are said to clear the nasal passages, although I have not found this to be a noticeable effect.