The Controversy of “Tisane” versus “Tea”

A big controversy is swirling in the world of tea: what is a “tisane” versus what is a “tea.” Every time I get into a discussion of this with people, either in person or through social media (Twitter and Facebook), I’m reminded of a recent conversation of “car” versus “bicycle”:

Tisane made of Chamomile blossoms
Tisane made of Chamomile blossoms

 “How do you like my new car?”
 “But that’s a bicycle.”
 “I call it a car.”
 “But it has no engine and only two wheels.”
 “I can call it whatever I want.”
 “But if you call a bicycle a ‘car,’ people won’t know what you mean.”
 “How do you communicate that way?”

I end up having similar conversations with people who call herbs and other plant matter not from the tea bush (Camellia Sinensis) or one of its varietals by the term “tea.”

 “What are you drinking?”
 “Tea. See, here’s the package.”
 “But it says Rooibos – red bush. That’s not tea.”
 “Why not?”
 “It’s not made from the tea bush.”
 “So? I can call it whatever I want.”
 “Then, why call it ‘tea’? Why not use another word so that people don’t get confused?”
 “Like what?”
 “Like ‘tisane.’”
 “Tiz- what?”
 “I want to call it ‘tea.’”
 “People won’t know what you mean.”
 “How do you communicate that way?”

See how both conversations end up at the same point? My main concern is always communication. Words matter. Using the wrong word matters. When it comes to what is a “tea,” part of the issue is caffeine, especially for pregnant women. When non-caffeine herbals are called “tea,” it causes confusion and necessitates a lot of label reading (a good idea anyway but still a pain). For me (a tea drinker who really really really doesn’t like Rooibos), the frustration mounts when I order tea and get a cuppa that stuff that tastes like pencil shavings to my tender palate.

Recently, someone labeled his ginseng tisane as ginseng tea, insisting that anything steeped in hot water could be called “tea.” He probably calls a bicycle a “car” just because both are modes of transportation with wheels. He might also call an apple a “peach” since both are fruits (meal time at his house must be a regular guessing game!).

So, what is a “tisane” versus a “tea”? First, tea comes from the tea bush Camellia Sinensis and its varietals such as Camellia Sinensis assamica and Camellia Sinensis japonica. Lots of hard-working and knowledgeable people grow, pick, process, and sell tea. Respecting all that effort is another reason to use the word “tea” only for that plant.

Tisanes started out as medicinal infusions, mainly barley water. One of the best known tisanes is chamomile. Another one gaining in popularity is Rooibos (red bush). Honeybush, ginger, lemongrass, French verbena, hibiscus, lavender, various barks and roots, plus berries, fruits, and seeds are other options.

Some straddle both sides of the naming issue by calling these drinks “herbal teas” or “herbal infusions.” The word circus goes round and round.

In the end, the term you use is your choice. For the sake of clarity, though, choose carefully. As it is now, most tea vendors have sort of given up on the whole issue and use “tea” for everything. They say it’s easier for their customers, an assertion I think is totally the reverse of reality since part of their business is informing their customers about their products (Stanley Tools doesn’t call a wrench a “hammer” just because their customers do). On the plus side, though, they usually say what is in their “tea,” so read the ingredients label carefully, especially if you are trying to avoid caffeine.

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6 thoughts on “The Controversy of “Tisane” versus “Tea”

  1. Pingback: Chamomile-Tea Blend for the Moving Body « Tea Blog

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  6. Oh thank heavens. I thought I was the only one who can’t stand rooibos. And I agree about naming things accurately. If I hear “tea”, I expect there to be camellia sinensis in it somewhere.

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