I RECEIVED FLOWERS for Mother’s Day, as I’m sure did countless moms across the country—a bouquet from the corner store and a cluster of purple pansies in a terra cotta pot that my son drew on with markers as part of a “parent project” at school. Flowers are lovely, but every mother knows that these childhood years of arts and crafts are particularly special. Although some handmade gifts don’t last over the long term (and you might not want them to, from an aesthetic point of view), others you do become extremely attached to: a colorful hand-painted dish, the cards that were drawn with extra care and imagination, to name a few.
Of course, sometimes we are inspired in our gift-giving, other times not. It goes without saying that I am not only a mother but also someone’s daughter. Each Mother’s Day, I am both gifted and giving. My mother would tell you that she requires no gifts at all, and in saying this she would not be playing some kind of guilt-inducing martyr’s card. She’d say (in a slightly sappy but very genuine way) that the relationship we share is already the greatest gift. We enjoy a very open one, characterized by love and depth of understanding, so I wholeheartedly agree, but still the gifting impulse is there.
This year, I had wanted to return to the realm of homemade gifts for Mom, but as the week between my son’s birthday party (read: buttercream) and Mother’s Day gained speed, I just couldn’t conjure the time or energy to make anything. Plus, as I thought about what I’d really like to give her, I arrived at intangibles: rejuvenation, restoration of health and vital energy. Not things you can buy in a store . . . or are they?
This is where tea comes in.
In the end, I made a trip to one of my favorite tea houses in the city, an oasis of calm that Mom and I have enjoyed together many times: Radiance Tea House & Books, on West 55th Street in Manhattan (link here). One of the reasons I return so often is because everyone who works there is incredibly nice, knowledgeable, and helpful. Without their guidance, it might be impossible to make a selection from among the extensive tea menu. Radiance offers all the usual teas, plus many I’ve never heard of. They also have a section of their menu dedicated to “wellness teas.”
While doing my best to respect privacy, I’ll tell you that it’s been a tough year for Mom so far, the worst of it being major surgery in early April. She’s come through it all brilliantly, but no matter how strong a person is, the physical havoc wreaked by surgery is always significant. There’s stress, loss of appetite, and the buildup of drugs from anesthesia and painkillers to cope with. I asked for some advice and was directed to two teas in particular, both of which I ended up giving to Mom for Mother’s Day (along with some chocolate, because we all know there’s nothing that can’t be helped with chocolate).
The teas were both herbal, caffeine-free. One was called Serenity, containing mint, chamomile, verbena, calendula, linden, and lavender. It is described as being good for sleep, stress relief, congestion, sinus tensions and headaches, digestion, and detoxification. The other was a Rosemary Rooibos tea, with additional hints of verbena, licorice root, and calendula. This tea is high in antioxidants, helps soothe the stomach, aids in digestion, is anti-inflammatory, and also works to improve memory. They each smelled enticing, and I nearly bought extra canisters for myself. Then I thought later, why not take a stab at a homemade tea blend?
This weekend, though too late for an official Mother’s Day gift, I came up with Mom’s Tea Therapy, a blend that takes Rosemary Rooibos as its point of departure, then adds a bit of this and that from my local emporium of exotic ingredients, Kalustyan’s (link).
One thing I’d like to clear up right away: how to pronounce Rooibos. I’ve mispronounced it myself for years. The proper way to say it is “ROY-boss.” Another thing I’ve learned about rooibos is that it’s not truly tea. Real tea comes from the Camellia species of plants; rooibos is a flowering shrub with the scientific name Aspalathus linearis. It’s unscientific name is “red bush,” which comes from the Afrikaans language—perfectly logical, as this flowering shrub is indigenous to South Africa.
Rooibos leaves are thin, needle-like, and green. Yes, green. The distinct red color sets in during fermentation. The taste of rooibos is somewhat fruity and mild, but despite its delicacy relative to other teas, this plant packs a strong antioxidant wallop. Exactly what every mother needs to withstand the demands made on her during the other 364 days of the year beyond Mother’s Day.
To the rooibos base, I added rosemary to replicate the overall nature of the tea I’d given to my mom. Since ancient times, rosemary has been used in medicinal preparations and religious rituals. Rosemary burned on the altars of the ancient Greek gods, and at different times and places throughout history it has been used in a similar way to purify the air in hospitals and in individual homes. Rosemary acts as a stimulant, promoting healthy circulation and invigorating the mind (which I’ll have to remember when my son is old enough to take exams), but it also has soothing effects as it reduces fatigue, sadness, and anxiety. According to Live and Feel, a site dedicated to wellness and the use of medicinal plants, rosemary “is appreciated for bringing youth, protection, love, optimism, vitality health and a restful sleep.” It is also provides natural fortification, “extremely efficient during convalescence, because it increases energy and optimism.”
After the addition of the rosemary, my first tea-blending experience felt like a cross between whimsy and mad science. A teaspoon of dried lemon peel, some crumbled bits of shaved licorice root, eye of newt (just kidding!) . . . The process reminded me of the true apothecary available to us in nature, and it was humbling as I realized how little I—and most people raised in modern, urban environments—know about plants. Walking through Kalustyan’s is always an education in itself, plus loads of fun. The best discovery this weekend was made by my son, actually, and can therefore be considered another gift to me. When I explained to him what I was making, he disappeared around a corner and then cried out, “Come look what I found!” He held in his hand what was arguably the most beautiful of all the dried packaged ingredients in the store: borage, also known as star flower.
I’d never heard of it. The dried flowers are shown above, together with rock sugar, which is unrefined and raw, retaining nutrients that in Chinese medicine are valued for soothing the lungs—as if we needed an argument for sugar consumption.
Casual research on borage turned up references to vitamin C, calcium, potassium, and gamma linolenic acid (GLA), an omega-6 fatty acid—all found in the flowers and leaves of this garden plant, whose scientific name is Borago officinalis. At Bouquet Garni Herbs, I found all the evidence I could have wanted that this lovely flower with its shock of purple color would be perfect for Mom’s Tea Therapy:
This ancient herb is associated with courage and in medieval times was infused in wine as a tonic to banish melancholy. Even today, an infusion of borage leaves is nature’s best tonic for stress and stress related problems. [ . . . ] Borage is a cooling, cleansing and refreshing herb with adaptogenic, demulcent, diuretic, expectorant and anti-inflammatory properties. European herbalists use borage tea to restore strength during convalescence. The leaves are used as an adrenal tonic to balance and restore the health of the adrenal glands following periods of stress. It is of particular benefit during recovery from surgery [ . . . ]
Borage is also mentioned in herbalist literature as having beneficial impact on throat irritation, chest colds, and bronchitis; on digestion; and, used in an essential-oil form, it may aid such complaints as rheumatoid arthritis, dry or damaged skin, and has been linked in some studies to lower blood pressure.
Before I give you my recipe for Mom’s Tea Therapy, which I’ve now packed in a recycled black tea tin and will pass along to my mom in due course, a couple of cautions/tips on working with plants and making your own tea blends.
First among these is: Do not experiment with plants of unknown identity or origin! This is critical for health and safety. Second: Even when you are familiar with a particular plant, it is still important to stay away from leaves or flowers that have been treated with chemical pesticides. This is why I confine my ingredients to those found in culinary stores, and I read all labels carefully.
To make the most of your blends, start with a base of black or green tea, or rooibos. Get the highest-quality, purest, unflavored form of tea you can find and afford—you’ll want your own flavor profiles to shine through a more neutral base. When adding herbs, use just-purchased jars of dried herbs (or dry your own from fresh); you’ll want to lightly crush or crumble them before use so that their aromas and healing properties can be released. Use a mortar and pestle if you have one, or blend your tea in a glass bowl, since both metal and plastic can have a negative impact on flavor.
Finally, remember to have fun and enjoy the process. Experiment. This was only my first homemade tea blend, and I’m sure there’s room for improvement. Knowledge about tea and how to create blends could fill a lifetime, and it does for many people. I don’t have a lifetime to dedicate to tea mastery, but I certainly won’t let that stop me from trying more blends in the future. It’s one of those things I can’t imagine I never tried before. Hopefully, as I become more familiar with the individual teas and the properties of various herbs, flowers, and flavors, my blends will gain both in complexity and subtlety.
In the meantime, I do know that the ingredients in this batch of Mom’s Tea Therapy—not the least of which is love—will do the trick nicely as a gift for my mom, way beyond the Hallmark holiday. (I’ll be sure to keep a stash on hand for my own maternal nerves as well.)
Mom’s Tea Therapy (Homemade Rooibos Tea Blend)
Yield: Approximately 3 ounces of loose tea blend (enough for about 24 8-ounce servings)
1 cup whole-leaf rooibos tea, unflavored
1/2 cup dried borage (star flower)
1 1/2 Tablespoons dried rosemary
4 teaspoons dried lemon peel
2 teaspoons licorice root, shredded into small pieces
Make the tea blend
Using a mortar and pestle, crush together all ingredients except the rooibos. (Alternatively, you may also combine ingredients in a glass bowl and use your fingers to crumble or crush them.) Add the rooibos and mix together thoroughly.
Place blended tea into an airtight container (I use recycled tea tins) and store in a cool, dry place. If giving as a gift, be sure to label the tin and include brewing instructions, below.
Brew the tea
Use 1 Tablespoon of loose tea for each 8 ounces hot water (I use simmering water, rather than water that’s reached a rolling boil). Steep for 5-7 minutes for full flavor. Sweeten with rock sugar or honey, if desired, or add a fine slice of fresh lemon.
Sip slowly and relax as you would into the best of mom’s embraces.