Tea versus Tisane

the fine line between teas + tisanes is not as clear as you think

July 11, 2019

Thousands of years ago, there was not a word for “tea.”

When Camellia sinensis (tea) was first used in Chinese medicine, it was referred to as tu (荼), the same word used to generally describe any medicinal plant. Only when craft and ceremony started to surround tea in the Han dynasty did the plant get its own specific character (茶)cha. In recognition of its cultural importance, there was a deliberate attempt in the language to elevate tea. At this point, diverging craft and tradition separated teas as unique and distinct from other herbs that would have been dried or eaten directly.

tu (荼) versus cha (茶)

Today, the weight of that distinction is a line in the sand between the simpler herbal teas – picked, dried and steeped out in large pots – and the “real” tea, Camellia sinensis, that requires meticulous finishing and craft at every stage and has inspired an entire aesthetic culture of teaware, ceremony and tasting.

For many of us, this line is clear. It seems easy enough to say that “real” tea is Camellia sinensis while herbal tisanes encompass everything else.


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Here’s the problem with that distinction.

By putting all the cultural value that the word “tea” inspires behind one species of plant, we are missing the opportunity to appreciate the craft, devotion and subtle taste experience that can bring out beauty in other plants.

I’d like to submit to the tea community at large that the cultural weight of the word tea should be awarded based not on plant species, but on craft. After all, it was the craft of tea that originally made it necessary to distinguish 茶 and 荼.

It is rare indeed to find those herbs and flowers whose craftsmanship and finishing are as meticulous and intensive as Camellia sinensis. Most herbal teas are made with ingredients that are picked and then air dried without heat-fixing, curling, roasting, fluffing, aging or any of the other processes that make tea so beautiful.

Yet, there are exceptions to the rule, exceptions that are so stunning that they make me completely rethink the way I use the word tea. These exceptions are coming from two of our closest partners in China, the He Family in Laoshan, and the Dongsa Cooperative in Qianjiazhai.

Laoshan Huai Flower Tea from the He Family

The He Family lives at the foot of the Laoshan mountains, a protected parkland full of wild herbs. For years, He Qingqing’s mother has been a devoted herbalist wild-foraging medicinal herbs like Goji Leaf, Jujube Leaf, Mulberry Leaf, Huai Flowers, and even Dandelion Leaf.

She used to dry these herbs to brew as fortifying tonics for those long days in the workshop and in the fields picking and finishing her family’s stunning teas. Yet, in the last few years, the He Family has been taking these much further, experimenting in their workshop by taking the fresh leaves and flowers and giving them the same treatment as their teas.

Niu Niu sits with her grandmother in the He Family’s workshop

All of these “non-tea” leaves are spread in bamboo baskets to wither, quickly heat-fixed to lock in their flavor and efficacy, curled to bring out deeper complexity (breaking down plant cell walls and creating a light oxidation effect), and finally, dried over controlled heat in woks and tumblers to bring moisture down to about 3% as quickly as possible. This last step prevents hydrolysis reactions from changing the flavor and keeps the finished leaves food safe and shelf stable. The heat and finishing that the He Family bring to their herbs locks in a different portrait of these herbs’ natural flavors, bringing out their sweetness, eliminating bitterness, and coaxing out their hidden complexities.

Over hundreds of years, people realized that tea was sweeter and more delicious with processing than it was fresh or simply dried. Now, this insight being applied to other herbs by people like the He Family. The results are what I would argue go beyond our understanding of herbal teas and instead cross over into what should rightfully be called “real” tea.

Crassicolumna teas from the Zhenyuan Dongsa Farmers' Cooperative in Qianjiazhai
a crassicolumna tree grows above the wall surrounding the Li Family’s home

The Dongsa Cooperative in Qianjiazhai is so remote that a generation ago even their Camellia sinensis var. assamica was too undervalued to be worth picking any more than staple food crops. In only the last few decades, the demand for their wild-forages ancient tea tree pu’er has skyrocketed as the domestic market realizes what a rare opportunity teas from Qianjiazhai really are. This means that the craft of tea is still new, and still being taught and shared with new craftspeople across the area by community leaders like Master Zhou.

This living memory of perhaps the last region on earth that hadn’t yet truly drawn a value difference between cha and tu means that people here are much more open-minded about finishing techniques and more respectful of all the plants that they can forage.


This open-mindedness has led to an “herbal” tea awakening in the area, with distant caffeine-free tea relatives like Camellia crassicolumna being wild-foraged, withered aged, and pressed into cakes just like sheng pu’er picked from Camellia sinensis var. assamica trees. The result is that over the last few years, demand for wild crassicolumna has begun to exceed demand for “real” tea.

Indeed, with its long aftertaste and sweet, rich texture, Crassiclumna is just as nuanced and complex as “real” tea. The devotion that Master Zhou, the Li Family and the whole cooperative put into foraging for this plant and carefully finishing it is at least equal to their “traditional tea.” So if pu’er (made from Camellia sinensis var. assamica) can be called tea, why not its cousin, Camellia crassicolumna?

a cake of Camellia crassicolumn leaves pressed with Camellia asamica tea flowers

The He Family and the Dongsa Cooperatives’ wild-foraged experiments are limited and highly seasonal, but they might be new a blueprint for herb farmers across the world.

Why should any small farmer going through the labor of tending their fields and the craft of balancing their agriculture have to have their product treated like an auction commodity, no different from the next field over? Why should mint farmers or tulsi farmers be denied the chance to offer something that goes beyond the commodity market and in doing so, creates a more economically sustainable model?

The introduction of finishing craft is a path forward towards this vision, a way for small farmers to tap into the culture of tea and offer the world something new and beautiful. We look forward to seeing what the future brings!


3 Responses to “Tea versus Tisane”

  1. I like the idea of differentiations based on what is ultimately consumed, but to me ‘tea’ is the name for the preparation. In many languages the distinction is subtle, but we limited English speakers need nominclature to maintain order. Subtly is not our strong point!


  2. There is no such plant as Camellia assamica.

    The correct name is Camellia sinensis var. assamica as you list elsewhere in your article.

    It’s faulty logic to suggest that a beverage made from the leaves of Camellia crassicolumna should be called tea, just because Pu’er is made from Camellia sinensis var. assamica. The latter is still C sinensis. It’s a varietal, not a separate species.

    Tea is tea, because it is made from Camellia sinensis. That’s its definition. It has nothing to do with how the leaves are processed. That simply defines what type of tea it is ie green, white, yellow, black etc

    Anything else made from steeping plant matter in water is a tisane.

    I understand that you think their product worthy of merit and promotion – and I have no doubt it is – but neither of the justifications you put forth have any logical basis to them.


    • Lily Duckler

      Thanks for sharing.

      For reference, the article above does indeed reference Camellia sinensis var assamica in each instance. To clarify, our goal is not to argue the meaning of current Linnaean terminology in regards to the plants discussed above.

      Instead, one of the main discussions of this article has to do with something called Semantic Change. Word meanings are constantly changing. This fact is widely accepted by linguists the world over, and can even be seen daily in every language currently in use. Semantic change is not about logic, but rather about a more nuanced understanding of language as a living, ever changing thing.

      There’s no denying that for the majority of native English speakers, the meaning of the word “tea” is not strictly defined as Camellia sinensis only, but rather a more general “hot brewed infusion, typically of leaves, but including any number of botanical flowers, spices, etc.” Critical to an understanding of why this is the case is the acknowledgement that “tea” itself is a loan word. Tea is not a native English word, and is not found in English, Old English, German, Latin, etc or really any Indo-European language group until it was taken and borrowed from the Chinese language groups. With this understanding in mind, we can see that the loan word “tea” has been flexibly transforming itself outside of its original context in order to fit the needs of English speakers across generations.

      Our goal in this article is to convey the weight of this word’s meaning as understood and used by the people who grow tea, process tea, and live with tea every day. The weight of that meaning is much more closely tied to craft in the perspective of the people we work with and represent across China, not just in Qianjiazhai. As such, the goal is not to logically change your mind about how you use the word “tea” but rather to introduce each reader to a more nuanced and informed understanding of what the word “tea” means to the people who produce tea. Arguing that their perspective is invalid, useless, and incorrect is an illogical line of reasoning.

      Here’s another perspective: if you walk into a grocery store and ask “where can I find tea?” you will be taken to a section that is full of hot infusables, but the majority of organic matter in the section is probably not Camellia sinensis. Likewise, if you walked into a grocery store and asked “where can I find Camellia sinensis?” you might not be immediately understood, even though both you and the people attempting to help you are fluent in modern English.

      To reiterate: one of our goals with this article is to highlight the fact that language is constantly changing – sometimes slowly (a response to changing historical context), and sometimes very quickly (see: the recent rise of the word “tea” to mean gossip). Even Linnaean taxonomy itself is not set in stone and never ever changing – as we learn more by looking at genetic information rather than relying on morphology, etc, taxonomic classifications do in fact change all the time! The “meaning” of old names must therefore change to reflect new understandings. Perhaps PhyloCode proponents (or some other new scheme) will win the day to abandon Linnaean taxonomy, or maybe their campaign will just end up sparking reforms based on genetic-based identification. Who knows? It’s a dialogue. These questions are never settled, and that’s a wonderful thing.

      Our point is: language is a living thing. From widespread common usage to specialized vocabulary of special interest groups, words and their meanings are “up for grabs” depending on how they get used. Limiting the definition of the English word “tea” as only Camellia sinensis – now and forever, never changing in the past and never changing in the future, never acknowledging its status as a borrowed loan word, and never looking around to take changing context and usage into account – requires a closer look. Hopefully, a more nuanced look can help us examine our particular assumptions and biases we each bring to the table when we advocate a specific definition of what we are allowed to designate as “real” tea.

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