Dr. Leonard Perry, University of Vermont Extension
On a tour this summer of Strawbery Banke historic gardens in Portsmouth, NH (http://www.strawberybanke.org/ ), one garden featured plants used for “Liberty Teas.” These were the true tea plant substitutes the colonists began using 240 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.
One of the most common 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.
Common flowers used for the Liberty teas were sweet goldenrod (Solidago odora), red clover, chamomile, and violets. Leaves of herbaceous plants such as bergamot (bee balm or Oswego tea), lemon balm, and mints were brewed as many are today. Many herbs were brewed in the 18th century including parsley, thyme, marjoram, rosemary, and sage. Native Americans introduced the colonists to many of these plants which they often brewed to use medicinally. Even some fruits were used in colonial teas, including those of dried strawberries, blueberries and apples. Rosehips, rich in vitamin C and used today in teas, were used then as well. “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 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 this goldenrod are that is grows 2 to 4 feet tall, has smooth or slightly hairy stems, 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 can either 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.
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