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Before getting into the world of herbal remedies I thought any plant-part steeped in hot water was “tea”.
But tea, in the truest form of the word, only comes from Camellia sinensis leaves.
Although today they’re popularly known as herbal teas, any other plant-infused-water – hot or cold – is more properly known as an infusion, or herbal infusion.
And there’s another accurate name for these non-Camellia sinensis brews. It is “tisane”.
This one takes a botanical perspective and is basically synonymous with “infusion”.
To help see what is what in the world of plant drinks, lets match up infusion vs tea and compare these terms’ differences.
What is Tea?
Tea can be traced back to where it is said that it was first discovered in 2737 BCE by the Chinese Emperor Shen Nong. (4)
Tea is the seventh of the ancient and legendary Seven Necessities in Chinese culture.
Here is how Websters Dictionary 1828 defines tea:
1. The leaves of the tea-tree as dried and imported. There are several kinds of tea as imperial tea hyson and young hyson, called green teas; souchong and bohea, called black teas, etc.
Red tea, black tea, green tea, white tea and oolong are among some of the many true forms of “tea”. Each has its unique harvesting and processing method, but each of these teas are considered as true tea because they’re all from the same plant, Camellia sinensis (Thea sinensis, or C. thea).
- Common names: Green tea, Assam tea, Tea Camellia, Tea plant, Tea Tree Camellia (6)
- Tea plant name: Camellia sinensis (Thea sinensis, or C. thea)
- Family name: Theaceae
- Origination: Assam
- Type of plant: evergreen shrub
There is also another lesser known Camellia sinensis tea plant – the assamica variety:
C. sinensis var. assamica is from the Assam region of northern India with larger leaves hardy to zone 7 and south. The differences in taste, color, and aroma between these teas are achieved by varying the variety, climate, harvest, oxidation, and processing.– Northern Carolina Extension Gardener
But “tea” also has lesser definitions.
The third definition allows for any and all plants to be considered as tea.
For at least the last ~200 years, as shown by the Websters 1828 dictionary, “tea” has also had a third and lesser definition that includes all “vegetables” and all “plants used like tea“.
3. Any infusion or decoction of vegetables; as sage tea; camomile tea etc.
And the modern Merriam-Websters version retained this original definition:
“3a:any of various plants used like tea
also : a drink prepared by soaking their parts (such as leaves or roots) and used medicinally or as a beverage; mint tea, an herbal tea
Tea will always be hot water infused C. sinensis leaves, but considering the third definition, when used in context of the specific herb or plants used to make it, tea can also mean “herbal tea.”
For example, this Holy Basil Tea recipe.
The term “herbal infusion” includes any plant steeped in water to extract its components.
Tisanes, on the other hand, specifically exclude C. sinensis.
Next, lets look deeper into each of these herbal beverages:
- herbal teas
Starting with infusions…
What are Infusions?
When you steep any plant into water in order to extract its goodness, you’ve made an infusion.
Even the Camellia sinensis can be called an herb, so it’s not excluded from the infusion list.
The word “infusion” implies “herbal infusion” because its main definition revolves around plants.
Wikidata has it defined as the “process of extracting chemical compounds or flavors from plant material in a solvent.” (1)
Herbal infusions provide a way to obtain THE WATER SOLUBLE beneficial properties within plants that cannot be had by eating them whole.
Plants have many beneficial constituents that need a solvent to be extracted out and made bioavailable. Many of these are water soluble. That’s where infusions and decoctions come in.
Herbal infusions and decoctions are ancient ways of attaining mind and body supporting water-soluble phytonutrients from all of the wonderful plants around us and around the world.
And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.Genesis 1:29
How To Make An Herbal Infusion
Hot herbal infusions are made just like green tea.
You pour hot water into a tea pot of some sort with a couple tablespoons of your herbs of choice.
A lid is always used to retain volatile oils that would otherwise escape.
And the steep goes on for much longer than your average tea.
Mucilaginous herbs use a cold water extraction method.
Cold water infusions are another wonderful type of infusion to start making.
The material used for infusions will be the more fragile flower petals and plant leaves.
We do a cinnamon stick decoction for our Cinnamon Clove Mouthwash Recipe.
What are Decoctions?
Where as infusions have you steep your herbs in water, decoctions have you simmer them.
And they need to be heated for longer periods of time in order to extract their beneficial properties.
A decoction can simmer from anywhere between 10 minutes and 10 hours!
A decoction is a method of:
“extraction by boiling herbal or plant material to dissolve the chemicals of the material.” (2)
Decoctions are most often a plant extract and used to support overall health, specific issues, as well as for scientific experiments (3), but they can be non-plants as well.
We do overnight broths in a big outdoor pot over charcoals for a recipe called Hinlay Curry. This is technically a 12-hour or so decoction of the animal bones and other decoction-suited soup ingredients such as the mushrooms or cilantro stems in this recipe.
Plant Parts For Decoctions
You’ll need to use the decoction method for tougher plant parts that wouldn’t be phased by an infusion method.
For example, ginger root.
Ever try to make a “ginger tea” before, but end up with a weak ginger-water?
This is because ginger should be decocted.
Plant-parts that need to be decocted include:
- calyx (like in our Roselle Juice Recipe)
How To Make An Herbal Decoction
Once you’ve attained the proper ingredient(s), you’ll need to find out how long your plant or mushroom needs to decoct for.
Many are made with a good 15 to 25 minute simmer.
And then many others, like a Reishi mushroom decoction we often make, requires a good 1-hour simmer at the minimum.
Infusions vs Herbal Tea
The MAIN difference between infusions (herbal infusions) and herbal tea is the WHY you are drinking it.
This WHY will dictate what it is you’re actually making and consuming.
“Herbal Tea” has become the main verbiage for any form of herb outside of the green teas that’s being steeped into hot water (infused) to consume.
Infusion or tisane recipes have you steep them for much longer than your average bagged herbal tea. They are made with a much higher concentration of herbs.
“Herbal tea” is defined as:
beverage made from the infusion or decoction of herbs, spices, or other plant material in hot water. (5)
The word “herbal tea”, in my personal opinion, makes you think of a tea-bag or equivalent amount of loose leaf herbs infused in water.
The issue with tea bags is that even if they’re high quality leaves, they won’t give you the benefits you seek UNLESS if perhaps you drank them throughout the day as they do in China with loose leaf tea.
But if you do that with tea bags, you should know that there are issues with many tea bags being toxic.
An herbal infusion (or decoction) is made to be consumed for specific benefits to your mind and body. It will contain more leaves or plant parts in its recipe than your usual herbal tea bag amount.
It can be made with all glass or other safe cooking materials, it won’t leave you thinking about those hidden toxins in tea bags (“plastic teabags release billions of microscopic particles into tea” is the subheadline of this McGill University news article), and it will truly provide the beneficial properties of the plants you infuse or decoct.
Infusions vs Green Tea
Here are some of the main differences between herbal infusions and green tea.
Type Of Plant & Parts Used
Herbal infusions include any herb or plant part, mushrooms, tree bark, seeds and husk, etc.
In comparison, tea comes only from the tea shrub’s leaves.
Comparing Infusion/Steeping Times
Tea is generally a short one to 3-minute infusion of tea leaves into hot water.
In comparison, herbal infusions infuse more plant matter and for longer periods of time.
How Each Is Consumed
Traditional Chinese tea is an integral part of their culture’s history and lifestyle for a reason.
Tea is sipped on throughout the day in China.
That’s one of the main takeaways I got from living there for a time.
I lived in Kunming, Yunnan for a time during my 20’s. After first moving there, I quickly adopted the custom of never leaving my place without my glass tea bottle full of loose leaf tea. I found some great ones at an awesome tea-shop in Kunming. It was lined wall-to-wall with large barrels of some sort. Each was full of unique Chinese teas. He’d lift their lids to pull some out for me to sample.
The Vulo Pu-erh stood out to me with how its sweetness arose afterwards. Throughout cities and even residential areas in Kunming, China there were hot water refill stations to give everyone access to refills throughout the day. For example, a Chinese airport without functioning hot water machines would be strange. Other countries, not so much.
Caffeine Content Comparison
All tea plants have caffeine. In comparison, many herbal infusions will not.
But infusions can be just as caffeinated or more than your average cup of coffee.
Yerba mate is the most well-known because it provides an almost equal amount of caffiene per 5oz cup as a coffee does. Coffee gives around 90mg of caffeine. Yerba mate provides around 80mg of caffiene per 5oz cup.
Another herb that gives half the amount as a single cup of coffee, so it’s a coffee-lite – is Guarana.
There are many other lesser known herbs that have caffeine in them as well.
Because infusions use a higher concentration of plant material, they can easily surpass traditional teas in the amount of caffeine they’re able to provide.
Wellness Benefits Provided
Green Tea Benefits
Green tea is known for its many beneficial compounds. Combine that with the way teas are drunk consistently all day long in China, and you get something very comparable to how an herbalist would recommend someone to drink their lighter herbal infusions throughout the day.
Green teas are known for potent antioxidant flavonoids called catechins.
These are very beneficial to the human body.
What makes tea such a health-enriching beverage are all the beneficial properties it offers:
- Amino acids
Herbal Infusion Benefits
Herbal infusions provide a rich number of polyphenols, including flavonoids, phenolic acid and tannins.
However, herbal infusions have a far wider range of application.
Perhaps you’re stressed out and need some natural support to calm your nerves.
You’d be looking for an adaptogenic herbal infusion/decoction (like this Holy Basil decoction).
Same goes if you’re looking for:
- something antimicrobial
- or to aid your digestion
- to help you relax
- to help calm down some untamed systemic inflammation
When you need specific support to specific parts of your body and mind, you will need to look at herbal decoctions and infusions over tea or herbal tea bags.
Both green tea and most herbal infusions are alkalizing. They will help balance your body’s acidity levels.
This is opposed to coffee, which is acidic.
Coffee is a diuretic. And as much as I love my morning cup, coffee does have its downsides. One being that it messes with your magnesium absorption rates. It also dehydrates you.
These reasons alone make it worth looking into mind-enhancing infusions and decoctions. Some with caffeine, but others that don’t need caffeine to pick you up and eliminate your daytime fatigue.
What about Tisanes?
Tisanes just like infusions and decoctions, are an ancient way of obtaining medicinal values within plants.
Tisane is another more accurate name for herbal infusions than “herbal tea” is.
They are similar to herbal infusions, however, tisanes are specifically non-tea plant infusions.
This blog here by a blog called A Matter of Taste has great information about tisanes and where the term comes from.
Final Thoughts: Infusion vs Tea vs Herbal Tea vs Tisane
Once you’re talking about the extraction of beneficial plant properties, you’re stepping beyond the world of “herbal tea” and into the world of herbal elixirs.. infusions and decoctions.
A recap on this infusion vs tea comparison:
- Tea – anything from the tea plant (C. sinensis). And to a lesser extent, any plant.
- Herbal tea – think of an herbal infusion-lite, enjoyed more for taste or passing time?
- Herbal infusion – made and consumed different than both tea and your average herbal tea. It most often has a medicinal purpose, and can be made to target specific mind and body needs.
- Tisane – synonymous with herbal infusion. It excludes C. sinensis.
How To Get Herbs Needed For Herbal Infusions
Buy Bulk Herbs or Grow an Herb Garden For Best Quality Infusions & Decoctions
Buying bulk herbs from a someone you know or a company you truly trust and/or growing them yourself for your infusions and decoctions are the best ways to go. There are undoubtedly going to be some good quality herb suppliers online for you if none are in your local area.
Chives, mint, oregano and thyme are some herbs that grow well when potted indoors.
Thanks for coming by the blog!