Herbal Tea Ceremonies
Written and Photographed by Mary Plantwalker
Herbal Tea Ceremonies are a delightful way to find beauty in the everyday. By slowing down and getting to better know our plant allies, we can simultaneously open up to heartfelt connection with ourselves and/or others. Making the time and space to hold your own personal herbal tea ceremony—or with a friend, your family, or a group—is a low-impact, simple act of pleasure that can lift the vibe of any day!
Tea Ceremonies are traditionally held honoring the plant Camellia sinensis (Theaceae), who holds dibs to the common name “tea,” in its many forms of white, green, oolong, black, and pu’erh (a post-fermented type of tea). Because of tea drinking’s popularity, its common name has spilled over into the herbal world of tisane, or infusion-making, and is also known as herbal tea, although actual tea is not in the beverage.
We are surely living in unprecedented times, where the wild fusion of traditionally distinct food, drink, dance, music, and more is rapidly changing culture. This blending of customs opens up the door to creating our own ceremonies and traditions that resonate with our current sense of place and modern-day lifestyles. Herbal tea ceremonies are one example of these newly evolving customs. However, showing appreciation and respect for the cultures that we gain inspiration, knowledge, and direction from is essential in forming these new ceremonies.
A Dip into the History of Tea
Originating in China, tea culture is vast and varied, as it has been around for thousands of years, within multiple countries in Asia. One legend says that while in his courtyard quenching his thirst, some leaves of a Camellia sinensis tree/bush accidentally fell into Emperor Shen Nong’s cup of hot water and thus the brew was discovered!1 Not only did this brew taste good, it was found to have medicinal qualities as well: antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and mood-enhancing qualities with energizing effects. The combination of flavor and properties have drawn people into tea’s spell from all over the world, making it the most popular beverage of all time!
Different Traditions of Tea Culture
The popularity of tea birthed entire tea cultures, and Asia is well-known for its tea ceremonies, some of which still remain unadulterated by colonization. From the direction you move your hands and vessels, the order with which you prepare the tea—to how the vessels are arranged, what each sip symbolizes, and how many sips are allowed to properly drink the tea—are just some of the rites that have remained strong in tea ceremony for centuries.
In China, some tea trees are over a thousand years old. Cultivation has been mastered to find the most unique and rich flavors. These different varieties of Camellia sinensis yield distinct tastes that are explored in the traditional Chinese tea ceremony. The flavors can also differ widely due to the processing of the leaves, the temperature and type of water, steeping duration, type of vessel, and how the leaves are stirred. During the Song dynasty, tea was named as one of the “Seven Necessities” of life (firewood, rice, oil, salt, sauce, and vinegar being the other six).2
In Japan, green tea has been widely favored. Self-discipline and awareness play a part of the tea ceremony; and silently following the lead of the host is essential, except that the host will not drink the tea, as it is prepared solely for the guests. Zen in the Art of the Tea Ceremony is an in-depth look into the spirituality and stories of the Japanese tea ceremony. The handling of the tea bowl is very significant, and symbolism is a large part of what makes it a ceremony. For instance, the sound of the water boiling in the kettle symbolizes the singing of the wind in the pines, and the supporting hand and the grasping hand for the tea vessel intentionally move to become one hand, creating harmony.3
In other cultures, tea has manifested different ceremonies—the tea culture of Russia uses tea glass holders called podstakannik, and the stronger the tea, the more generous the host. If you were to participate in a Myanmar tea ceremony, you would probably not only drink tea, but eat the tea as well, called lahpet, or pickled tea leaves. In Tibet, butter, milk, and salt would be brewed with the tea and a strict set of rules would regulate the ceremony. In Vietnam, most likely you would have jasmine (Jasminum sambac) blossoms added to your drink. My Taiwanese friend introduced me to bubble (boba) tea, a sweet version of tea brewed with tapioca pearls that has become very popular around the world. India produces more tea than anywhere else in the world; the beverage known as chai (which is actually the Hindi word for tea), is brewed with other Indian spices and has become popular in the West. Travelers along the Silk Road from India brought tea to Iran (Persia) where Iranians adapted it by putting a lump of rock sugar in their mouth before drinking the tea. Egypt’s national drink is now tea, but tisanes like hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa) and mint (Mentha spp.) are growing in popularity.4
Colonization and the Continued Spread of Tea Culture
Certainly colonization has played a role in both altering and spreading the practice of tea drinking all over the world. Countries that formerly grew tea for themselves were forced to increase their production on plantations in order to meet the growing demands of their colonial rulers. India may have been more strongly affected than any other country because of British colonization—giving over entire regions of their country to the production of teas like Assam, Darjeeling, and Nilgiri.
The United Kingdom wholeheartedly embraced tea drinking, and to this day one can hardly think of Great Britain without thinking of teatime. Tea equates with a mid-day break in the UK (“afternoon tea”), but in the United States, most folks know it as iced tea, sweetened or unsweetened.4 Importers of tea, like the Czech Republic, offer varieties from around the globe in informal tea houses and began the Dobra Tea Collective in 1992. These kinds of tea houses are springing up all over the world where people come to socialize and/or relax, while drinking tea.5 Most often there is a subcategory on the menu that includes herbal tea offerings.
Wild Tea Ceremonies
Imbibing plants infused for their medicinal benefits and/or good flavor is becoming more popular in many countries through the vehicle of tea culture combined with a longing to live more simply, and know-how to make our own food, drink, medicine, and entertainment. Returning to the simpler things in life, we have the freedom to create our own wild, or herbal, tea ceremonies. This can bring a serenity into our often hectic lives. Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh speaks often of the peace that comes with drinking tea:
“I drink the tea, the essence of the leaves becoming a part of me.
I am informed by the tea, changed.
This is the act of life, in one pure moment, and in this act
the truth of the world suddenly becomes revealed:
All the complexity, pain, drama of life is a pretense,
invented in our minds for no good purpose.
There is only the tea and me, converging.”
Tea can be a vehicle of focus for returning to our center and invoking peace and calm.
An Herbal Tea Ceremony Story
A few years ago, a very dear friend of mine, Jessie Wilder, suggested we host what she named an “Appalachian Tea Ceremony” at a summer gathering we both attend annually. She chose the name Appalachian Tea Ceremony because we live in the Blue Ridge Mountain range of the Appalachians where we drink daily infusions of plants that we grow and wildcraft. (We drink a lot of weeds.) This idea to co-create a ritualized space and serve local, herbal tea in a ceremonial way was right up my alley! An opportunity to be in sacred space with the plants that grow around my home that I so deeply know and love awakened inspiration for what would become dozens of herbal tea ceremonies.
We received such positive feedback from all who participated; and then several people began asking if I could do it more often. So, I started hosting these kinds of tea ceremonies by donation, twice a month on our farm. Robin Harford of the UK highlighted the ceremonies on his EatWeeds Podcast and then Steve Lorch, a US tea grower, attended an Appalachian Tea Ceremony and wrote about it in his book How to Make and Grow Tea in the United States. It became evident to me that this was one of my callings—holding ceremony while drinking herbs—and I am committed to doing tea ceremonies for the rest of my life!
Creating an Herbal Tea Ceremony
So how do you create an herbal tea ceremony, and what happens during one? There is no handbook on the matter, but from my understanding of ceremony, there are certain aspects that need including to make it an actual ceremony instead of a hangout fest. Knowing the purpose, creating the setting, and offering a prepared sequence of flow—including a formal beginning and ending—are the main points to be observed in creating a tea ceremony. The Appalachian Tea Ceremonies that I host are more in the style of a Korean tea ceremony where there is an ease, inside a formal setting, that allows for more variety of conversation, types of tea, and choices in how to sit. A heightened respect for the tea(s) being served is essential, but how the flow of an herbal tea ceremony unfolds can be a creative process that evolves with experience. An hour to an hour and a half is plenty of time to hold a magnificent tea ceremony. I love sharing the way I have learned to hold tea ceremonies, but please feel encouraged to make your own ceremony from the heart!
The purpose of holding an herbal tea ceremony is to honor the herbs themselves, pay respect to the simple yet profound act of drinking tea, and to listen deeply. Common plants can transport us into a healing space that alone we may not be able to access as easily. In an herbal tea ceremony, we hold space for one another and ourselves to feel the subtle rising of energies that accompany whatever plant is being drunk.
Preferably, herbal tea ceremonies are held outdoors, but if the weather is not conducive, a well-lit indoor space will do. It is important to be able to see the tea and the plants that are making the tea. Items that you will need for your tea ceremony are seats—whether pillows, or floor or folding chairs—a centerpiece, vessels that hold the tea and vessels/cups for drinking the tea, and ideally, examples of the plants that will be shared. Creating the setting is not a complicated affair. Create a space that’s beautiful, comfortable, and in harmony with the number of people that will attend. If someone does not show up as intended, remove their seat and cup before serving tea.
In an herbal tea ceremony, the tea is usually prepared beforehand for the sake of time and ease. It would take a lot of equipment to make the tea at the ceremony itself, and it can take hours if you choose to infuse the herbs strongly. Traditional tea ceremonies have ceremonial preparation of the tea with the guests, so this is one big difference between the two ceremonies.
Once everyone has gathered, begin by taking a few moments of silence. I ring a bell to commence. Invite those in attendance to open their hearts and practice deep listening to each other and to what they may be feeling. I'm not going to tell you step by step what happens in my Appalachian Tea Ceremony for brevity’s sake, and because the sequence content is meant to be unique with the goal of creating your own herbal tea ceremony. There is no right or wrong flow, as long as you are clear on the purpose, have prepared the setting, and follow an intentional sequence.
Next, offer a ritualized presentation of the tea. How you serve the tea should be consistent for each guest. Invite your guests to observe how they drink the tea. Listen to the sound of the tea being poured. Look at its color. Smell its aroma. Feel its warmth. As the host, pay attention to how the group is interacting with the tea. I once led a tea ceremony where I served roasted dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) root I had dug up the day before. It was fascinating to see the collective energy of the group become almost sedated, as if they were sinking deep roots into the earth. When the ceremony was over, nobody wanted to stand up! We all felt so grounded and content.
Once everyone has had the opportunity to taste the tea, share your knowledge and experience, or even a story, about the particular plant friend or friends featured in the tea. Then open the opportunity for others present to do the same. Personally, I am happiest when the tea ceremony is between 7 and 12 people. Any more than that and it becomes hard to keep the intimacy. I have found that the herbal tea ceremony is just as much an infusion of people as it is of plants!
In closing the ceremony, I like to take any leftover tea that people may not have finished and have them give it back to the earth with a prayer. If their cup is empty, they may choose to just walk over and touch the earth. You can decide your own closing rites that resonate for you, but make these rites as intentional as you did the opening of the ceremony so there is a sense of completion.
Herbal Teas Used in Ceremony
There are endless teas one can use in an herbal tea ceremony as there are countless herbs! I like to incorporate herbs that I grow or wildcraft to keep it sincere to these Appalachian Mountains, but you can hold herbal tea ceremonies with herbs you buy or receive from afar—it’s all up to you! Here are some good things to remember though:
1) Your audience
Depending on the people in attendance, you may want to stick with simple, easy, good-tasting herbs. If it’s an herbally experienced group, then branch out. The herbs don't have to taste good to make for a successful herbal tea ceremony. We have jiaogulan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum) growing in our garden, and personally I think the taste is terrible. But I know the plant is amazing, and brings good health and a good feeling, so I serve it anyway.
2) Potential allergies
Ask ahead if anyone attending has any allergies to herbs so you don't unknowingly harm them. I served Kentucky Colonel Spearmint (Mentha spicata cv) once without asking, and it turned out a woman present was allergic to mints! She smelled the mint tea first and didn’t partake knowing what it was from its unmistakable smell and her history with mints. Some people have allergic reactions to chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) and other herbs in the Asteraceae/sunflower family.
3) Fresh vs. dried herbs
One of my favorite things to do if I can, is serve the tea both fresh and dried. The difference in taste and the strength of the properties of the herbal tea will vary depending on the age and processing of the plant material. Juliet’s Herbal Infusions and Decoctions, Preparing Medicinal Teas blog walks you through the step by step method of making both dried and fresh herbal infusions.
Beloved Herbs for Tea
Here are some of my favorite herbs to use when making herbal tea. Such lovely darlings...
From the Garden
- Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum Ocimum tenuiflorum)
- Peppermint (Mentha x piperita)
- Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
- Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
- Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla)
- Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus)
- Chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum morifolium)
- Nettle (Urtica dioica)
- Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)
- Birch (Betula lenta)
- Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
- Plantain (Plantago)
- Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)
- Burdock (Arctium lappa)
The Joy of Herbal Tea Ceremony
Whether taking part in an herbal tea ceremony is new to you or not, remember that the plant beings are much older than us humans, and have for millennia brought joy and comfort into our lives. There doesn’t need to be anything complicated about an herbal tea ceremony, and holding one for yourself is tops for self-care. I can’t think of a more simple pleasure than lighting a candle or feeling the sun's rays alight upon my face while sitting with a fresh, warm brew of herbal tea and reflecting upon the wonders of the world.
- “Tea’s Wonderful History.” Chinese Historical and Cultural Project website. http://chcp.org/virtual-museum-library/teas-wonderful-history/.
- Wang Lei. “The Essentials.” https://www.theliftedbrow.com/liftedbrow/2018/2/23/the-essentials-by-lei-wang TLB Society Inc.; 2020.
- Hammitzsch H. Zen in the Art of the Tea Ceremony. Avon; 1980.
- “Tea Culture.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tea_culture
- “Tea Rooms from Around the World.” https://www.venuereport.com/roundups/25-tea-rooms-from-around-the-world-that-you-have-to-check-out/entry/8/
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MARY PLANTWALKER (Mary Morgaine Squire) is a devotee of the plants and healing path. Steeping herself in the plant world for almost 30 years, she has also woven in yoga, meditation and prayer as acts of daily life. She is a mother, writer, avid gardener, ceremonialist and plant ambassador. In the 1990s, she earned her BA in Journalism and Sustainable Living from Fairhaven College, and has since traveled the world meeting and learning from as many plants and indigenous healers as possible. As an active earth steward, Mary is called to protect and care for Herb Mountain Farm, the incredible land she stewards in western North Carolina, while encouraging others to create sanctuary wherever they are on the planet. Mary is gifted in facilitating ceremony and enticing mindfulness into the everyday, and is passionate about welcoming people into the walk of embracing plants as allies while living in harmony with all beings. You can follow Mary's plant escapades on Instagram.
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