by Mariia Ermilova and Tatiana Ilinich
Every Russian knows the tall herb with elegant pink flowers and a reddish stem: Ivan-Chai (Epilobium angustifolium or Chamaenerion angustifolium). This plant is found throughout Russia, from Europe to the Far East. It usually appears on the outskirts of towns, one of the first species to appear when land is cleared by fire. Decades ago it was valued for its several uses in preparing food. By the end of the twentieth century, however, the value of it had been mostly forgotten, with the only hint of its use remaining in its common name, Ivan-Chai: literally, Ivan Tea, which links to its most widely known use.
Every Russian knows the tall herb with elegant pink flowers and a reddish stem, but by the end of the twentieth century the value of it mostly had been forgotten.
The botanical dictionary of Nikolai Annenkov (1878) gives more than fifty names for the Ivan-Chai herb. The names describe the plant’s features: “willow-grass” because of the similarity of its leaves with willow leaves; “fire grass” or “firefighter” because it’s the first to occupy the land after a fire; and “screech and weeper” because when you try to pull the grass from the ground, there is a matching sound. More importantly, a variety of names correspond to its use in the everyday life of Russian people up until the end of the nineteenth century. It was called “wild hemp” or “wild flax” for the high bast properties of its stems, giving a fifteen percent yield of fiber used for ropes. A very common name was “fluffy.” The fluff of the plant, very abundant after flowering, was used in the manufacture of wool (as wadding), which was stuffed in pillows and mattresses. Ivan-Chai also has the names “narrow-leaved,” “breadbasket,” or “miller.” The dried and ground roots of the plant were added to flour and used for baking bread. This supplement, in addition to providing vitamins and trace elements, saved or replaced sugar. In North America, Ivan-Chai is commonly called “fireweed” and was used in similar ways by Native people for centuries.
So, why is “Ivan-Chai” the most common name among Russians? The tea made from the fireweed was popular in Imperial Russia. Yet another name for Ivan-Chai tea is “Koporye tea,” named for a village near St. Petersburg that was a tea-manufacturing center in the nineteenth century. Some people say Ivan-Chai was exported to Europe and competed with tea from India.
In the twentieth century, however, a series of events—the repressions of the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik regime, along with rapid industrialization and World War II—resulted in people becoming detached from the land and tradition.
In recent decades the situation has reversed somewhat, and the amount of Ivan-Chai tea production in Russia is growing. One of the reasons is increasing production by farmers who are explicitly devoted to traditionally oriented economic practices. In the 1990s, readers of Vladimir Megre’s book The Ringing Cedars of Russia followed his “call” to return to the land and begin a new life in harmony with nature and ancestral traditions in intentional communities. These now number 388 across Russia; in many, they make Ivan-Chai tea as one of their products.
Another factor that has contributed to the revival of the Russian cultural tradition of Ivan-Chai tea making is the Ivan-Chai festival in Nizhny Novgorod Oblast east of Moscow, which teaches the preparation of the tea and immerses the participants in their ancestors’ lifestyle. In 2006, Tatiana Ilinich gathered a small circle of like-minded people to resume the tradition of collecting and preparing the fireweed tea according to an old recipe from Eugeniy Ivanov, known as “the Potter.” This recipe was given to him directly by an old herbalist healer. Since 2006 Tatiana and Eugeniy have held the tea-making festival thirteen times and hundreds of participants have gained the skill.
The festival usually lasts for a week and is held in different districts of the Nizhny Novgorod province and in other regions of Russia where there are fields with the Ivan-Chai herb. The main goal of the festival is to give hands-on knowledge of the use of the Ivan-Chai plant. When traditions are being lost, preserving them in books is good, but it’s not the same as actually practicing them. Why is it important to preserve a living tradition?
When traditions are being lost, preserving them in books is good, but it’s not the same as actually practicing them.
The authors of the festival say that knowledge dies when it is not transmitted. Once received, you need to pass it along. Tatiana speaks about how she got the idea to conduct the festival:
“I am an ethnographer and lecturer at the University of the Russian Academy of Education, where I conducted a course on traditional culture for students. Therefore, this is partly a professional interest of mine on the dynamics of ethnic culture, embodied in action. Moreover, since 2000 I have been interested in the Chinese tea ceremony and their tea. Then the question arose—what do we Russians have? I began to look for an answer. Sergey Ivanov, ‘the Potter,’ did this before me for many years.”
The dates of the festival (which are aimed to fall around June 24th) are timed to coincide with Kupala Night, or Ivan-Kupala, an old festival based on the Slavic pagan calendar that was later adopted by Christians. According to folk knowledge, just after the summer solstice (Kupala Night) the herbs are at the height of their power and should be collected. Also, during the Kupala Night a purifying fire is made, and people jump through the fire to burn all disease and evil from their body.
An essential role in reconnecting with tradition is played by the Russian folk costume, worn in order to participate in the festival.
An essential role in reconnecting with tradition is played by the Russian folk costume, worn in order to participate in the festival. Participants make the dress in advance, studying the details of the national costume and mostly sewing it by themselves. They learn and sing folk songs, play traditional games, and enjoy the banya, the traditional Russian steam bath. The old lifestyle also is reproduced within the kitchen.
Preparing the Ivan-Chai Tea Recipe
To prepare Ivan-Chai tea, the leaves of the plant need to be fermented. For that, we must crush them and let the juice come out, while making rotating movements with one’s hands. In mass tea production people use different techniques to knead the leaves, but tea prepared by hand is valued the most. After that, you let the leaves stew for a day or two in a bag or box, like in a greenhouse, before the aroma from them gets fruity. After that we dry them in the oven at a temperature of 40 to 60 ˚C. Another type of fermentation, done like a Chinese Pu-er tea—in a ceramic bowl, which is sealed for a year and dried in the oven while closed—is done by the Potter.
The Health of the Body: Taste of the Traditional Food
Ivan-Chai tea doesn’t contain caffeine, so it has a calming effect and, therefore, is good to drink before going to bed. These sedative qualities explain the Russian folk saying “Drink the tea and get sleepy,” which is the opposite effect to that of a common black tea or green tea with stimulating qualities. Ivan-Chai tea has a pleasant aroma and a fresh, slightly tart taste. The plant contains a range of minerals and vitamins and is also used for medicinal purposes.
The tea made during the festival is served from a samovar (literally, “self-brewer”), a metal container traditionally used to heat and boil water in Russia. Participants also forage for strawberries (Fragaria vesca), Klubnika strawberries (Fragaria viridis), and blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus)—gifts of the summer forest in western Russia.
“We made the festival vegetarian and eat only fish. Meat is not offered in any form since our ancestors ate almost no meat at all in summer. In those times the cattle were grazed in the summer and slaughtered in winter,” Tatiana says.
She prepares the food using the old recipes. One of them is for polba, an old Russian porridge made from “wild wheat,” which most of the participants tried at the festival for the first time. The gem of the festival is botvinia (chilled beet soup), prepared from the root vegetable’s greenery, called botva in the old Russian language. The soup is based on the kvass drink and served cold. Kissel, a dessert, was also “restored” from an old recipe by Eugeniy.
Also prepared are common Russian dishes such as shchi soup; potato or buckwheat porridge with mushrooms; various pickles; ukha soup from a local fish, usually fresh; and of course pirozhki with diverse fillings.
People have wisely noticed that food grown on your own land heals you, whereas food produced in a faraway country sometimes can be harmful. The main motivation to take part in the Ivan-Chai festival is to learn about your own country’s traditions, especially the ones that make you healthier.
People have noticed that food grown on your own land heals you.
The festival is organized along the lines of an ethnographical mystery so that it provides a profound experience of folk rituals, song, dance, and life, giving a deep immersion into celebration, which helps participants feel a belonging to their culture and their ancestors’ heritage. In this way, it revitalizes the physical and mental health of the nation.
Participants come away feeling transformed and feel a spiritual strength of unity with their cultural tradition. The festival creates a network of like-minded people supporting each other in the revitalization of biocultural heritage. Once you go through the festival, you become the holder and spreader of the knowledge of collecting the Ivan-Chai herb and the tea-making practice. We believe that it brings health to the body and soul, as it’s connecting people to their land. Festival “graduates” later collect the Ivan-Chai herb with their families. Some participants bring it to their cities and practice Ivan-Chai tea-producing with friends.
Tatiana believes that the Ivan-Chai herb blossom is worthy of becoming the national flower of Russia.
Wherever you go in Russia, you can find the extraordinary beauty of Ivan-Chai and its gifts that we can use to gain health in body and soul.
Mariia Ermilova is pursuing a PhD in Landscape Planning at Chiba University’s Graduate School of Horticulture, Japan. Part of her research focuses on the links between arts and crafts and citizens’ knowledge and perception of their natural environs. As an artist, she sketches urban scenes and traditional Japanese crafts. Read more from Mariia Ermilova.
Tatiana Ilinich, PhD, is an ethnographer, ethnopsychologist, and practitioner of traditional Russian culture. She is the author of the book Prazdnenstvo Ivan-Chaya (The Festival of Ivan-Chai) and the organizer and host of the annual festival since 2006.
Annenkov, N. I. (1878). Botanical Dictionary: Reference Book for Botanists, Farmers, Gardeners, Foresters, Pharmacists, Doctors, Travelers across Russia and General People. St. Petersburg, Russia: Printing House of the Imperial Academy of Sciences.
Bushueva, G. R., Syroeshkin, A. V., Maksimova, T. V., & Skalny, A. V. (2016). Chamanerion Angustifolium: A Promising Source of Biologically Active Compounds. Trace Elements in Medicine, 17(2), 15–23. doi:10.19112/2413-6174-2016-17-2-15-23
Ilinich, T. K. (2010). The Ivan-Chai Festival: A Book on the Harvesting and Preparation of Ivan-Chai in the Russian Tradition. Nizhniy Novgorod, Russia: Decom.