University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
On a summer tour of Strawbery Banke historic gardens in Portsmouth,
NH (http://www.strawberybanke.org/), I visited one garden that
featured plants used for "Liberty Teas." These were the true tea
plant substitutes the colonists began using over 200 years ago after
the Dec. 16, 1773 dumping of the black tea from ships into Boston
harbor in protest of taxation. The black tea, also known as “bohea”,
came from a plant (Camellia sinensis) of tropical climates.
Although commonly called “teas”, since these beverages don’t contain
tea leaves, they are more accurately called “tisanes”.
One of the most common of these faux teas, or true tea substitutes,
was the native American shrub New Jersey tea (Ceanothus
americanus), also known then as Indian tea or Walpole tea.
Leaves of raspberry also were commonly used for these colonial teas,
as were sweet fern and spicebush. Bark from some trees such as
sassafras and willow were used. Little did the colonists know that
most the oil in sassafras bark is safrole—a compound now banned by
the FDA as a food additive as it causes cancer in laboratory
Common flowers used for the Liberty teas were sweet goldenrod (Solidago
odora), red clover, chamomile, roses, and violets. Leaves of
herbaceous plants such as bergamot (bee balm or Oswego tea), lemon
balm, chamomile, and mints were brewed as many are today. Many
herbs were brewed in the 18th century including lavender, parsley,
thyme, marjoram, rosemary, lemon verbena, and sage. Native Americans
introduced the colonists to many of these plants, which they often
brewed to use medicinally.
One of the most commonly used was the lavender-flowered wild
bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). While most of our current
garden bee balms are of a different species (Monarda didyma),
any bee balms can be used for teas. The wild species though, found
in wild areas and along roads, usually has the highest oil content,
so use it sparingly. Try a small handful of flowers and leaves per
pot of tea. It combines well with lemon and honey.
Even some fruits were used in colonial teas, including those of
dried strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and apples. Rosehips,
rich in vitamin C and used today in teas, were used then as well.
Some were combined, such as strawberry and apple. “Indian lemonade
tea” was made from boiling the berries of the red sumac.
Often ingredients were combined, such as a common tea recipe of that
time including equal parts sweet goldenrod, betony, clover, and New
Jersey tea. If you want to try to make a simple Liberty tea, take
leaves from the sweet goldenrod just before it comes into bloom.
Otherwise if you wait too late, leaves may become bitter.
Also known as anise-scented goldenrod, its leaves smell of anise
when crushed—one way to identify it. Other ways to identify the
sweet goldenrod are that is grows 2 to 4 feet tall, has smooth or
slightly hairy stems, and lance-shaped leaves to 4-inches long with
parallel veins. Leaves have solid margins, and translucent dots.
Flower clusters are branched and plume-like. Individual flowers
are in rows on the upper sides of the plume branches.
You either can dry the sweet goldenrod stalks, hanging upside down
in a well-ventilated area out of direct sun but warm, then strip the
leaves when dry; or, you can strip the leaves and dry them in a
single layer on trays. When leaves are crisp and fully dry, you can
use or store in tight containers. Steep a teaspoonful of dried
leaves in a cup of boiling water for five minutes, or to taste. Try
combining these leaves with those of peppermint or spearmint.
Most plants such as these that the colonists used for their tea
substitutes, as we use today for our herbal tisanes, can be brewed
and enjoyed safely in moderation. Some, such as the berry leaves,
provide vitamin C and other healthy ingredients. Too much of these
supplements, from drinking too much of some herbal teas, can cause
Occasionally an herb may trigger an allergic reaction, such as those
allergic to ragweed drinking chamomile tea. Introduce such teas
slowly to your diet to check for allergic reactions. While mint is
generally safe for most, it may worsen symptoms for those with acid
reflux. If you have health issues, or are taking medications, its
best to check with your doctor or pharmacist for interactions before
beginning brewing and consuming herbal teas. It is generally
recommended for children or those pregnant not to consume herbal
teas, at least without professional advice.
When collecting leaves or flowers of other plants, first make sure
you are positive what plant you are collecting to use for tea,
especially if collecting from the wild. If not your property, make
sure you have permission to collect. If only a few plants are in a
wild population, make sure not to harvest more than a quarter of the
plants so enough are left to multiply. Best is not to collect along
roadsides for safety concerns, and excessive dust, grime or road
toxins. If collecting from gardens, make sure no pesticides have
been used on the plants.
Harvest in mid-morning once any dew has evaporated, before
temperatures get too hot. Wash leaves or plant parts and drain or
pat dry. If you cut many herbs back early in the season by half to
two-thirds, you can usually get another harvest or two. If using
fresh plant parts, unless you’re familiar with their use and
strength, start with a small handful per pot of tea.
If you want to save your tea harvest for later, you can dry in a
dehydrator, or warm area with ventilation out of direct sun. If
drying, make sure your plants parts are completely dry. Raspberry
or strawberry leaves, for instance, are fine fresh or dry, but may
cause gastric upset if wilted or only partially dry.
Place leaves or plant parts on paper towels, with another on top to
protect from dust and keep from blowing away. Allow to dry for
about 10 days, or until they crumble and no longer feel moist. Then
store in tightly closed jars or containers. Or you can store in
plastic freezer bags with all the air squeezed out. Don’t crumble
leaves until using, as much as possible, to preserve the most