Chai tea is a delicious way to start working with local plants. Tailor your own chai recipe with aromatic herbs native to the forests of your region and then learn how to identify, seek out, and properly harvest the botanicals needed for the recipe. The process will lead to you becoming comfortable with identifying, harvesting, and preparing a good handful of edible plants which grow all around you. Then maybe out of curiosity you'll research the medicinal properties of each botanical, then maybe other edible uses, and then maybe you'll stumble onto some traditional indigenous uses for folk magic and ceremony... Then you will have more plant knowledge than you can shake a stick at (ok, at least much more than you started with). The result won't be a true chai, but it will be your chai and will become your tasty gateway drug to the wonderful world of bioregional herbalism.
Boreal Forest Chai
2 tsps Fresh or Dried Chaga Mushroom, ground
1-2 tsps Dried Large-Leaved Avens root, roasted and ground
1 tsp Dried Balsam Fir Needles
2 tsp Cinnamon Bark, crushed
Non-native suggestion: The avens root and the chaga are chocolatey, but raw, freshly ground cacao nibs push this combination over the top. Without the cinnamon this becomes balsam fir hot chocolate (which is not a bad thing at all).
Simmer in a pot on the stove on low for 20 min, strain, and add milk or cream and your favourite sweetener. I highly recommend homemade balsam fir tip syrup, maple syrup, or local honey. Unlike other coffee/black tea substitutes, chaga must be simmered low and slow rather than steeped and the same tea bag can be used up to three times to make three equally strong and tasty pots of tea.
Eastern Forest Chai
2-3 tsp Acorn Coffee (avoid acorns from the poisonous Red Oak)
1 tsp Dried Eastern Hemlock Needles
1 tsp Dried Labrador Tea Leaves
1 tsp Dried Sweet Fern Leaves
1 tsp Dried Sweetgrass
1 tsp Fresh or Dried Wild Licorice Root
Non-native suggestion: A cinnamon stick and/or a few cloves will complete the chai flavour.
West Coast Forest Chai
2 tsp Dandelion Root, roasted
1 tsp Chicory Root, roasted
1 tsp Dried Western Hemlock Needles
1-2 Dried Salal Leaves
1 tsp Dried Rocky Mountain Juniper Berries, crushed
1-2 tsp Fresh or Dried Wild Ginger Root, thinly sliced (specifically Asarum Caudatum)
1 tsp Fresh or Dried Licorice Fern Rhizome, sliced or crushed
1-2 tsp Dried Vanilla Leaf
Non-native suggestion: just a cinnamon stick!
Place the herbs in a drawstring muslin bag, a self-fill paper tea bag, or cheesecloth tied with string and place in your favourite tea pot. Pour freshly boiled water over top, put the lid on the tea pot and cover it with your tea cozy or a dish towel to keep it hot. Wait 10-20 minutes to steep the tea. When ready, remove the tea bag, pour the chai into a mug and add milk/cream and sweeten with honey, maple syrup, birch syrup, or a herbal syrup to taste.
Forest Tea Ceremony
With a nod to a simple animistic practice from indigenous peoples, create your own tea ceremony to connect with local plant spirits. Go to the edge of a forest or your favourite spot in nature with your travel mug of pre-made tea or be a hardcore hippie and brew it on site with a fire. Pray to the plants as you brew the tea and call the genius loci you wish to work with, spirits great or small. Sip the tea with calm, focused intent. Pray and ask what you want of the spirits: a relationship as spirit ally, their healing powers for an ailment, for their blessing to go into the woods and harvest plants or hunt... whatever your desire may be. Ask for a sign or a dream to reveal their blessing: "grant me your blessing in the form of a raven's call."
A herbal tea of local plants is a simple way to connect with your wintery wildwood, but also warm yourself at the same time with the exotic spices. Leave a cup as an offering at your ancestor or genius loci shrines, serve it to guests to show hospitality, or give out cups of it to warm up participants of outdoor winter rituals. Good tea is always worth the effort of harvesting, preparing, and sharing!
~ Sarah Lawless