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A Brew That's Good for Planet : A Camarillo firm packages herb teas, which are grown chemical-free. They are imported from all over the world.


Ventura County's planetary reach was highlighted vividly to me the other day when I noticed that the exotic herb tea Pau D' Arco, which my wife has been drinking for umpteen years, comes from a company right nearby, in Camarillo.

I hadn't thought to look at the box before. The firm has been marketing so many teas and is so well known and venerable that I thought it probably was headquartered in a ye olde place like Boston or Baltimore.

What I did know, however, was that the drinking of herb tea is good for the planet because the product is generally grown chemical-free. And drinking it promotes environmentally friendly agriculture in developing countries all over the map.

It turns out that our local representative of this kind of eco-business, Seelect Herb Tea Co., is the oldest firm in America in its industry. Founded in Los Angeles County in 1935, the firm moved to Camarillo a few years ago because of the pleasant atmosphere, natural and entrepreneurial.

Still family-run by Rob Lessin and Patti Anders, grandchildren of founder Max Lessin, the 14-person staff packages herb teas imported from all over the world. The company then sells its products in all 50 states. Locally, you can find their herb teas at Kayser's Nutrition, Health Stop, Premiere Health, Rainbow Bridge, Lassen's and Mrs. Gooch's.

Although the Lessin clan's packages make no claims about it, herb teas have a reputation for promoting health and calming the spirit. Major civilizations throughout history have had a rich tea lore.

Native American, Asian, Mediterranean and European societies have developed wonderful uses for these leaves, roots and bark. Seelect markets a couple of dozen varieties. The generic names are quite evocative--black cohosh root, shave grass, slippery elm bark, horsetail, blessed thistle, yarrow. And my wife's tea, Pau D'Arco, is also known as Ipe Roxo. It's from Brazil, where it is harvested in a manner that doesn't harm the natural fauna--or even the tea-bearing plant itself.

There's even an exotic name for this form of sustainable agriculture: "wildcraft." That's the practice of gathering herbs in their natural setting without tramping down the fields and forests or leaving things dead in one's wake.

Most of the teas Seelect markets are harvested in their natural habitat. (Chamomile, by the way, is not. It's been domesticated, as have alfalfa and some other crop-raised plants.)

Everybody has a favorite tea or tea story. And personal experience dictates how anybody decides to drink this or that tea at any particular time. One thing is sure: Herb teas are caffeine-free, and that's a good thing. Still, a debate continues in Washington about "medicinal claims" on herbal product packaging and advertising. I'm not going to get into that fight.

The Seelect packages do, however, say things about the environment, bringing to public attention such issues as recycled and biodegradable packaging and chemical-free manufacturing. I took special note of the fact that the plastic bags in which they seal bulk teas--for those who like to brew without tea bags--are made of recycled plastic.

That's important for several reasons. The use of packaging made from materials that might otherwise have been dumped in a landfill helps clean up our local environment. And the use of such materials by someone in the food industry--especially the health food branch--sends a clear message about the high quality of the things that can be made from recycled plastic. The manufacturing process involved nowadays actually breaks the stuff down into its original chemical components--just like a virgin raw material. There's nothing icky about this at all anymore.

This month, says Rob Lessin, new packaging will be released announcing that Seelect is "The Right Tea for You . . . and Our Planet." Lessin doesn't go on to mention "wildcrafting," leaving that to me to discuss. But that kind of stimulating language, as well as some stimulating teas, are what you're going to get if you visit your nearest health food store and ask about the lore of such things as valerian root and eyebright and echinacea, a tea grown organically up in Washington State. Brew a cup and save the planet.

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