Buchu and Rooibos

“Buchu and Rooibos”  is a newly launched product by Robert Roberts that was sent to me a couple of weeks ago to taste. I have a huge interest in South African herbs but had never heard of Buchu so Google had to step in to help.

Agathosma-betulina

Buchu flowers (Source: Go South Online)

The most common varieties of the plant are Agathosma betulina and Agathosma crenulata. However, these are just two of the 150 varieties in the Agathosma family that thrive in the climate of the Western Cape Province of South Africa. The plant is a member of the citrus family but has a strong flavor of blackcurrant. The seeds can be planted from April to June with harvesting 18 months later between the months of October and April.

Buchu tea seems to have many applications. The essental oil from the buchu plant is recommended for arthritis, bloating, indigistion, hypertension and lots of other ailments but its strongest association is with soothing and strengthining the urinary system and relieving the symptoms of urinary tract infections.

buchu stamp

Buchu: SA stamp (Source)

Little research has been carried out to establish its effectiveness as a medicine so most people refer to what are thought to be its original uses by native South Africans: ingested for bladder problems and rheumatism and applied topically as an as an insect repellent. Steeping the leaves in brandy produces an alcoholic buchu brandy (known as boegoe-brandewyn). Several websites note that Buchu should be avoided in pregnancy because traditionally it was known to stimulate uterine contractions. Breastfeeding women should also avoid Buchu.

For more information on planting and harvesting there is a good brochure here on Buchu from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Republic of South Africa

Note: I did not buy this tea – it was sent to me to taste. I have no affiliation with Robert Roberts and have not been paid or compensated for writing this post.

Chamomile: German and Roman

The chamomile harvest is in full swing over here. This year I have the two varieties of the herb that are grown for medicinal use: German (Matricaria chamomilla) and Roman (Chamaemelum nobile).

The chamomilGerman Chamomile2e plant is used for making herb beers and for the treatment of toothaches, earache, neuralgia as well as swelling and skin conditions. In general the “inhalation of the vaporized essential oils derived from chamomile flowers is recommended to relieve anxiety, general depression”. However, if you wanted to pick a plant for a task, the extract of German chamomile contains a higher proportion anti-inflammatories (chamazulene) while Roman is considered better for soothing skin conditions.

I partly grow chamomile to harvest the flowers but the chamomile plant itself is like a tonic for the garden. It is pest and disease free and boosts the health of all crops that it grows alongside but improves the flavour of brassicas and onions. I have them interspersed with other plants to encourage insects and improve the overall health of the garden.

The German variety is native to Europe and western Asia and is an upright annual that can grow to 1 metre tall. The Roman variety is native to western Europe and north Africa. In theory it is a low-growing perennial at about 20cm in height. However, for me, the roman chamomile seeds have produced a plant that is almost as tall as the German chamomile. Both produce small, daisy-like white flowers with yellow centres. This yellow centre is flat on the German variety and raised in the Roman variety (see pictures below).

German Chamomile

German Chamomile

Roman Chamomile

Roman Chamomile

At the start I was picking the blossoms daily to get them just when they open for best flavour. However they need to be dried immediately after harvesting and for this they need to be laid out flat on a mesh screen in a warm place indoors, out of direct sunlight. This is causing a space issue as it takes several weeks for the flowers to dry completely. Lately I’ve started cheating with the microwave and oven to speed up the drying. Hopefully that won’t affect the power of these little flowers too much.

For more information on chamomile there is an interesting article published here: Srivastava JK, Shankar E, Gupta S. Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future. Mol Med Report. 2010;3:895–901.

Honeybush

Honeybush packetI’m a long time fan of rooibos but hadn’t tasted its honey-flavoured relative, honeybush, until I was in South Africa two years ago. Even in South Africa, honeybush is the underdog to rooibos but I happened across this packet from the Langkloof mountain and ended up regretting that I hadn’t bought more. A lot more!

The honeybush plant grows naturally in the mountains of the Eastern Cape and spreads down along the Langeberg and Swartberg mountains into the Western Cape towards the coast as far as Bredasdorp. It comes from the same Fabaceae family as rooibos and is similarly low in tannins and caffeine-free. There are ~24 known species of honeybush in the genus Cyclopia but only a few have been successfully cultivated. As a result, most of our honeybush is harvested in the wild (70%) and the remaining 30% is produced from the 230 hetares of cultivated honeybush. A recent report from the South African Broadcasting Corp. (SABC) warned about this unsustainable harvest putting honeybush at risk of extinction.

Honeybush loose teaIt’s not surprising that demand for honeybush far outweighs supply. Honeybush is consumed worldwide but Germany accounts for over half of the 220 tons of exported Honeybush. Together with the US and the Netherlands these three countries buy nearly 90% of all the Honeybush that leaves SA.

In terms of taste, it is sweet and has less of that distinctive malty rooibos taste, which some people dislike. It is soothing but the bright honeyed flavour makes it less of an after-dinner tea. Because of the natural sweet flavour, I think it works best as an afternoon tea.

To prepare, 250-300ml of freshly boiled water (100° C) is added to 5g of loose leaf tea. I leave it for several minutes for a deeper taste because unlike real tea it doesn’t get bitter when steeped for a long time.

For more information on honeybush there is an good profile report available from the South African Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

 

Some bitterness

chamomile group shotLast year I wrote about Chamomile and there is no doubt that growing it was easy and very rewarding. I am, however, having a problem with the taste of the infusion. After picking the flowers, I dried them immediately in the hot-press and then transferred them to a jam jar for storage in a dark cupboard. I infuse around five flowers in hot water and leave for two to three minutes but the taste is incredibly bitter, almost to the point of being undrinkable. I’ve tried different brewing techniques: cooler water, less infusion time, fewer flowers but there is no getting away from it!

German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) is said to be a little sharp but less so than Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile). My herb-growing friends say that theirs has an edge but nothing that a little honey can’t solve. I know that I didn’t pick the blossoms on the day that they opened and maybe the drying or storage conditions weren’t ideal but the bitterness seems disproportional to these lapses.

I’ll try to do better this year but in the mean time, I will console myself with the knowledge that herbalists associate bitterness with joy and energy. It is said that some bitter foods in our diet can support healthy digestion by stimulating saliva and other enzymes, promoting bile production for the digestion of fat and regulating blood sugar levels.

Jim McDonald goes into some detail in a chapter called “Blessed Bitters” (download pdf) and concludes by saying:

We avoid bitterness because its taste seems uncomfortable; it challenges us. And yet when embraced, we find what it offers us is an abundance of medicine, which allows us to escape from a state of stagnation and release those things, both physiological and emotional, that hinder the blossoming of our wellness.”

I will continue to drink my challenging chamomile and await freedom from stagnation ;-)

chamomile up close

Matévana herbal tea

MatevanaThere’s been a lot of talk about Teavana over the past year as they became part of Starbucks and then opened the first Teavana tea bar in New York. I’ve never tasted any  tea from this brand so I was delighted when my husband picked some up on a stateside visit.

There were definite grumblings when I saw that Matévana was a flavoured blend and I very nearly gave up altogether when I saw it had artificial flavouring. Look at this for a list of ingredients: Mate, cocoa kernels, red rooibos, chocolate chips (sugar, cocoa mass, cocoa powder), artificial flavouring, almond pieces, marigold petals. There is no real tea in the mix but part of me still wants to complain about the contamination of maté and rooibos, their intermingling, the use of artificial flavouring and the addition of sugar and cocoa mass.

Truth be told though, I surprised myself by liking this tea. The taste of cocoa matches the maté well. I don’t agree that it is dark, rich or robust as its description claims but it does have a smooth sweetness and a gentle flavour of roasted nuts.

Preparation: I used 3g with 200ml of water just below boiling and left it for several minutes. This tea was $6 for a 2oz pack but it looks it’s on sale at the moment on the Teavana site for $1.50 (for 2oz).

Yerba Mate

gourd bombilla and mateWhen my sister told me she was going to South America, I had two words for her: “yerba mate”. Not only did she bring back a big bag of yerba mate but she also brought back the gourd (vessel) and bombilla (filter tipped metal straw). Happiness :-)

Yerba mate or maté comes from a species of holly called lIex paraguariensis and so it’s a herbal infusion rather than tea. The plant is native to the subtropical regions of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina and is sometimes called “Jesuits’ tea” or “Paraguay tea”. Harvesting of cultivated plants starts at about 5 years and takes place after winter every 2-4 years. Harvesting looks a lot like tree-pruning but only the smaller branches and leaves are kept. After harvesting, the leaves and small stems are heated, dehydrated, cut, sifted and finally packaged.

brewed mate in gourdYerba mate is unusual in that it is a herbal drink but it has the same stimulating effect as tea and coffee due to the presence of mateine (i.e. caffeine). Historically in Europe it was considered a poor substitute for other caffeinated luxury goods such as tea, coffee and chocolate. It is only since the twentieth century that it has been recognised as a unique beverage and marketed as having “the strength of coffee, the health benefits of tea, and the euphoria of chocolate”. For more historical and cultural information, see this paper: “Stimulating Consumption: Yerba Mate Myths, Markets, and Meanings from Conquest to Present“.

As with tea, the flavour of yerba mate is influenced by the soil in which the plant grows but in general, it is light in colour and the taste is a distinctive combination of tree-bark and tobacco. Mate has a high tannin content but it has a lasting flavour that is very pleasant.

To prepare, the gourd is filled with yerba mate until it is three quarters full. After shaking (to ensure the smaller pieces are at the top), the gourd is tilted to one side and the bombilla placed inside. A small amount of warm water is added that is just enough to wet the leaves. The gourd is then filled with hot, not boiling water. The leaves are re-soaked several times by refilling the gourd with water.

Chamomile Herbal Tea

Chamomile Single Flower

Chamomile was one of the nine sacred herbs that the Anglo-Saxons believed had special powers. Known in English as Maythen, it was said to lift the spirits and have antifungal qualities. It is an anti-stress drink that eases sleep but it is also used for muscle aches, headaches, nausea and skin burns. It is  said to relax muscles and for this reason is used to relieve spasms of the digestive tract, colitis and diverticulosis and interestingly, it claims to also stimulate the appetite. As with all herbs, caution is needed before ingesting –  I have read that it should not be taken during pregnancy or while nursing and it may interact with certain drugs.

 

Chamomile herbal tea has been a long-standing bedtime drink in our house and this year we grew our own chamomile for the first time. In fact, chamomile and potatoes are in competition for our “allotment success story” of 2013. I bought a tiny pot of unknown variety for €3 last June and less than 3 months later it is a thriving chamomile plant that is low maintenance and colourful. It spreads low to the ground and the area that it covers is weed-free which is more than can be said for the potatoes!

 

The word chamomile comes from Greek and means “ground apple” and that’s exactly what it smells like. Two types of chamomile are grown in herb gardens for medicinal use: Roman (Chamaemelum nobile) and German (Matricaria chamomilla). The German variety is native to Europe and western Asia is an upright annual that can grow to 1 metre tall. The Roman variety is native to western Europe and north Africa and is a low-growing perennial that is usually about 20cm in height. Both produce small, daisy-like white flowers with yellow centres, though in terms of taste German chamomile is reportedly sweeter.  While the medicinal applications are similar, the German chamomile is contains a higher proportion of chamazulene, an active anti-inflammatory while Roman has a higher alcohol content and is considered better for skin conditions.

Both varieties are pest and disease free and gardeners often spread them among crops and herbs to boost overall health of the garden. There is a non-flowering variety of Roman chamomile and this can be used instead of grass for full lawns because it will thrive when lightly trodden. Buckingham Palace is said to have such a chamomile lawn that was planted for George V.

 

Chamomile Group ShotMy plant had one bloom when I bought it in June and since then has continued to bloom heavily. The blossoms should be picked the day that they open for the best flavour (I haven’t done this) and should be dried immediately after harvesting. To dry, they are spread on a mesh screen in a warm place indoors, out of direct sunlight. When the flowers are completely dry, store in light-proof jars or in a dark cupboard.

To prepare the herbal infusion, add boiling water to a teasppon of the dried flowers. Cover the container while it infuses to avoid evaporation of volatile oils. Leave for 3-5 minutes and then enjoy!

If anyone knows of other plants that are as easy as chamomile (or potatoes), I’d love to hear. :-)

Fennel Tea – the Nausea Cure

Patrick’s weekend could be summed up in the word “overindulging”. Rich food, wine, chocolate, whiskey – you name it and I probably overindulged in it! So in the mornings I stayed away from traditional tea and went for the herbal tea or tisanes that are non-caffeinated. For nausea, some people recommend peppermint tea (particularly for seasickness) and I think it works well as a prevention but once I feel queasy, it doesn’t seem to help at all.

Fennel Seeds

Fennel Seeds

 

Instead, I go for fennel tea. If you don’t like liquorice, this isn’t the tea for you but otherwise drinking this can feel almost instantly soothing for the stomach. As a bonus, fennel seeds are rich in anti-oxidants and a concentrated source of minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc. Fennel tea can also be taken for other digestive ailments like indigestion and heartburn.

 

Bruised Fennel Seeds

Bruised Fennel Seeds

Fennel comes in the form of light brown/green seeds. To prepare I bruise about a tablespoon of seeds (5g) with a pestle and mortar (bruising between two spoons works too). Then I put the seeds in a brew basket, add 200ml of boiling water to the cup and infuse for about 5 minutes. The brown fluid looks a bit murky but smells of liquorice and aniseed and is pleasantly warming to drink. You can infuse a second time but it will be noticeably weaker.

[If you are wondering how all of this fits in with the steeping method that I talked about here, bear in mind that short steepings only apply to real tea (black, green, yellow, white, oolong and pu-erh), not to herbal teas/ tisanes. Tisanes have their own steeping guidelines depending on the herb but generally it is several minutes.]

Most tea houses and herbal shops will stock fennel seeds but because fennel seeds are used regularly in cooking, you can usually buy it in the spices section at the supermarket. I bought 100g for €3 which is excellent value as 100g would make at least 20 cups of tea.

I can confirm that fennel tea does not cure headaches but one thing at a time ;-)