Herbal tea history is steeped in rich tales of civilization built by the herbs and spices that make up herbal tea, or also called tisane. On another note, theres many herb teas unique to the culture-of-origins for the main herb used in the tea (such as hibiscus in Egypt). Herbal tea history is also entwined with the history of tea as Chinese tea masters combined true tea (camellia sinensis) with flowery scents (think of jasmine tea).
The history of herbal tea probably begins with humans discovery of herbs as a practical form of medicine and food flavoring. Really its not difficult to imagine many millenniums age in the Paleolithic period nomadic peoples picking some simple herbs and bringing them back to camp. Once at camp, the nomads did a little experiment of placing the picked plants into some hot water.
"Hey, guys this tastes great and makes us feel so much better. Lets keep finding some more," said one of the nomads.
So herbal tea history begin. People kept using herbs, boiled in water or left at room temperature, for their taste and medicinal affects. The first recorded use of medicinal herbs was by the Sumerians nearly 5,000 years ago and they used laurel, caraway, and thyme. But the Sumerians were definitely not the first or the last culture fond of herbs in the ancient world. Egypt was ripe with the blooms of garlic, mint, and coriander almost year around.
The first recorded herb garden may have been in Mesopotamia where this perennial "garden of paradise" boasted of saffron, hyssop, laurel, pomegranate, dill, fennel, onion, rose, and copious mint. The doctors of the time period used these garden herbs in their herbal teas for treating various ailments.
Moving on to ancient China, the tea masters there already perfected the art of true tea (camellia sinesis that makes the oxidized teas). They also perfected the production of quality scented-tea and flavored tea. One of their greatest achievements to the world (second after green tea) was the jasmine tea famous for its scent and flavor. Its production requires careful skill as the blooms and leaves of jasmine are picked and prepared into a moist pile for best flavor. The jasmine tea was eventually spread by merchants into the rest of Asia and Europe.
The Chinese masters were also responsible for producing wondrous flavored teas that involve adding dried herbs of flowers and berries to green tea or used by themselves. The flowers of rose, sweet almonds, orchid, lotus, and magnolia were used for a flowery, sweetly-scented beverage. You will find this tradition of flavored tea in the many fruit-infused drinks of today: apple, plum, citrus, and numerous berries. Herbal tea history was largely kept strong by this use of a variety of flowers and fruits for flavoring drinks and food.
As the centuries passed, herbs and spices became an expensive commodity for those outside Asia. The middle east merchants held a monopoly over the spice trade for the longest time just as Europeans longed to get their hands on the spice routes criss-crossing the Asian continent and into Europe. Theres hardly anything a European aristocrat wanted more than the "exotic" spices from the faraway lands of east Asia. Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, vanilla, and saffron tempered the aristocrat's desire, imagination, and pursuit of wealth and power.
Indeed, the Europeans had their every desire come true starting with improvements in navigation in the 15th century, allowing the Dutch, Portuguese, and British to rival for control of spice routes and even the spice-growing region of Indonesia. Now the they could get right to the coveted spices and herbs without any middleman Arab merchants. The influence of middle east culture died down as the European powers gained wealth from the control and purchase of spices. Its almost weird to our modern minds to think of wars being fought over something as seemingly simple as spices. But back in the day they were tightly-controlled commodities enjoyed for their taste and aroma.
Its easy to see some King or Queen at the day's end ordering their servant to bring them some nutmeg from the pantry. Surely, as they ate whatever was left of supper they thought to experiment with placing some nutmeg into water (after all so much the national treasury had been spent fighting over the spice). Like many people before them, it turned out to be a great-tasting drink.
Fast forward a hundred years, the sons of liberty board a ship to dump British-imported tea into the Boston harbor protesting years of British taxes. Well, this led to the American Revolution as the colonialists broke away from British power. The colonialists during this time period substituted their usual black tea with Labrador tea. Again the lost influence of one culture and the start of another culture's influence.
Labrador tea was long a native to eastern woodlands, but the colonialists brought it's seeds on their westward journey through the United States. Now the pungent drink can be enjoyed by residents on both sides of the country.
So what about more recent herbal tea history? Herbal tea is still widely enjoyed by people around the world. You can find the same flower teas used centuries ago still popular in Asia and around the globe and chamomile is still sold as a caffeine-free drink in France.
In America, the counterculture movement brought herbal tea into the mainstream. All that hippie stuff such as chamomile and peppermint tea started to be drank in the 1960s and early 1970s. Though some traditional tea drinkers complained it wasn't "real tea".
Thanks to the hippies and other herb tea enthusiasts before them we now know about the joys of this beverage.