by Lyn Chimera, owner of Lessons from Nature
After a busy day, sitting down with a good cup of herbal tea from the garden is one of the joys of my life.
I started growing a few mints and was hooked on the amazing taste of fresh mint tea. The freshness makes a huge difference. Every year my first cup of fresh tea is a cause for celebration.
Technically, herbal teas are not teas. Tea comes from the tea plant called Camellia sinensis. A drink made up of only herbs and flowers is known as a tisane, but we’ll stick with herbal tea.
Herbal tea can be made from leaves, flowers, berries or roots, depending on the plant. It’s most common to use the leaves. For the best flavor when using the leaves, cut the stems before the plant blooms.
When you harvest herbs for tea, make sure you choose plants that are safe to eat, especially if you didn’t grow them yourself. You don’t want to use a plant that may have pesticide on the leaves.
If you have extra stems, they can be dried and stored for use in the winter. I hang the stems upside down in the basement or attic. When they are dry, I remove the leaves from the stems and store the leaves in tins or glass jars out of direct light.
Once you have harvested as much as you need, let the plant bloom to add beauty to the garden and draw pollinators.
How to brew herbal tea
I use a one-quart coffee carafe that is used only for tea. A tea pot can also be used but the hot water in a carafe seems to have better flavor since the water stays hotter.
Use 10 or 12 fresh leaves, depending on size. You can keep the leaves on the stems.
Place the leaves and stems into your container and pour almost boiling water to cover the herbs and fill the pot.
Let the pot steep for 10 to 12 minutes. If you leave the herbs in too long the tea can get bitter.
Strain the tea and pour it into cups. I usually drink one cup and pour the rest, strained, into a glass jar and refrigerate it for later use. It makes great iced tea or can be reheated in a microwave.
For dried herb leaves (already taken off the stems but left whole) follow the same procedure but use about one heavy tablespoon of dried herbs for each pot. This can be adjusted depending on how strong you like your tea.
Combinations of teas are also fun to experiment with. Some of my favorites are apple mint with lemon verbena or lemon balm with four or five whole cloves. The lemon balm and cloves make a great iced tea.
Herbs used for tea
Here are a few plants that are easy to grow and make yummy herbal tea. Unless specified, you use the leaves of the plant.
There are many varieties of mints (Mentha). They include spearmint, peppermint, chocolate mint, pineapple mint and anise hyssop. All the different mint varieties make excellent teas with their leaves, either fresh or dried.
Each type of mint has its own flavor. My favorite is apple mint. The anise hyssop has an anise flavor.
Their growing needs are partial shade or full sun. Most of the mints are aggressive growers and are often grown in pots to keep them from spreading out of control.
My favorite summer drink is ice water with a squirt of lemon and sprig of fresh apple mint. Muddle the mint against the glass with a spoon to release the flavor. Cool and refreshing!
The leaves of lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) can be used for tea or added to salads for a lemony flavor.
The plant is a perennial that grows in full sun in any type of soil except wet. It seeds readily. To avoid having it spread too much, cut the seed heads off before they drop seeds.
Lemon verbena (Aloysia citriodora) is similar to lemon balm but has a stronger lemony flavor. A combination of lemon verbena and lemon balm in an herbal tea is quite good.
Lemon verbena prefers warmer climates and full sun. Use it as an annual or, when the weather gets cold, bring it inside.
Bee balm (monarda) is a beautiful garden perennial that is good for pollinators–it’s a hummingbird magnet. There are a number of varieties of monarda, all of which are good for tea.
Don’t use any leaves affected with powdery mildew, which is common with bee balm.
Monarda didyma was used as a beverage by the Oswego tribe of American Indians and was one of the drinks adopted by American colonists during their boycott of British tea. It is still referred to as Oswego tea and tastes more like tea from the tea plant, Camellia sinensis.
The roots and leaves of coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) can be used for tea.
The coneflower is a very common perennial grown to attract pollinators. It requires full sun and, once established, can thrive even in poor, rocky soil with minimal watering. Coneflower tea has a strong flowery taste.
For chamomile tea, the flower is most often used. It can be dried the same way you would dry leaves.
Chamomile has an incredible floral-apple flavor.
This is an annual plant and prefers to grow in a bit of shade. There are two common varieties you can grow: Roman (Chamaemelum nobile) and German (Matricaria chamomilla). The Roman variety has a bitter taste, so the German variety is more often used.
There are many types of scented geraniums, each with a different flavor, such as chocolate mint (Pelargonium ‘Chocolate Mint’) and pineapple (Pelargonium ‘Pineapple’). You can tell what it will taste like by smelling the leaves.
They are annual in our zone but can be wintered over indoors.
The scented geraniums also make a lovely garden plant with a variety of leaf shapes and colors. When you are done harvesting the leaves for tea, let them bloom. The flowers are small but beautiful and different for each variety.
Get ideas of more plants you can use for tea at this site from Cornell Botanic Gardens.
See more ideas on how to use herbs here; you can plant them all summer.