Herbal TeasOnce I began blending and testing herb teas to sell under my Garden Party label, I knew what I didn't want. An herb tea should never be flat and flavorless. Whether it's fruity or spicy, soothing or lively, simple or sophisticated, it needs taste and personality.
I found my homegrown mint, lemon balm and chamomile were more flavorful than the herbal ingredients I could buy. I also learned that many of the old-fashioned beverage flavorers, such as rose petals and toasted sunflower hulls, are still delightful additions. And for simple pleasures, few things equal the fragrance and flavor of a few fresh leaves of lemon verbena steeped in boiling water.
Here are my picks for the most flavorful and widely adapted "tea" plants for home gardens, along with tips for harvesting and my favorite recipes. All of these plants grow well throughout the United States. They are hardy perennials (up to -20°F) that do well in sun or part shade, except where noted.
Bee Balm (Monarda didyma), a member of the mint family, is native to the eastern United States and Canada. Here in the drier West, I pamper it, making sure it's in water-retentive soil. Both the brightly colored flowers and the leaves, with their complex flavors of citrus and spice, are used for tea.
Betony (Stachys officinalis) bears two- to three-foot spikes of violet flowers. The deep green, hairy leaves make a slightly astringent tea that's similar to a mild, fragrant China tea.
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a two- to three-foot-tall mint-family member. The fuzzy, scalloped leaves have a lemon-mint flavor. If you have cats, you know they roll in it. My solution: Grow a surplus and dry the leaves on top of the refrigerator where the cats can't reach them. One caution: Pregnant women should avoid drinking catnip tea.
Chamomile bears small, daisy-like flowers that have long been used in Europe for tea. German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) is a two-foot annual. Roman or English chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) is a lush green perennial ground coverms of C. nobile bear small, yellow, button-like flowers. Although many references designate German chamomile as the sweeter type preferred for tea, I harvest the mature flowers of both chamomiles for a light, apple-scented tea.
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) produces seeds that lend a warm, citrusy flavor to tea. The leaves, used in cooking, are known as cilantro or Chinese parsley. This fast-growing half-hardy annual prefers cool weather. Plant in fall in mild climates; elsewhere, succession-plant through spring and summer.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a three- to five-foot perennial often cultivated as an annual. In cold climates, you can succession-plant through the early spring and summer, and it will often self-sow. Here in the desert, I plant in fall. Fennel likes full sun. Both the feathery leaves and the seeds are used for licorice-flavored teas.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) is our family favorite. This floppy two-foot-tall member of the mint family has scalloped, lemon-scented leaves that make a soothing evening tea and add body to blends as well. It's listed for zones 4 and 5, but I've found it less hardy than other mints. A rooted cutting will overwinter indoors.
Lemon Verbena (Aloysia triphylla) is, among all the plants with "lemon" in their names, the most like oil of lemon, hence the most strongly flavored. The leaves are long, slightly sticky and deciduous. This woody shrub prefers full sun and a light, well-drained soil. It's hardy only in zones 10 and 11. Elsewhere, grow it in a planter and winter it indoors (treat it first with insecticidal soap, as it's prone to whiteflies and spider mites).
Mint (Mentha spp.) comes in many varieties, all of which have been used as teas. In my opinion, peppermint leaves (M. x piperita) are the only ones that stand up to drying and steeping, making a wonderfully refreshing iced tea. Like any mint, peppermint can be invasive. It tolerates drier conditions than spearmint. Here in the desert we give it shade.
Roses (Rosa spp.) can be used to make two kinds of tea, those from the hips (fruit) and those from the petals. You can use the petals of any fragrant variety that's been grown organically. I gather them when the blooms are just past their peak. Rosa rugosa is one that's recommended for both petals and hips because it's a fragrant, pest-free rose that doesn't require spraying. Rose hip tea is red, with a tart lemon-orange flavor, and is a source of vitamin C. Cut slits in plump hips to speed drying and crush them slightly before brewing tea.
Sunflower seed hulls, roasted and ground, were used by Native Americans and pioneers as a coffee substitute. I run a rolling pin over the seeds to crack them, then remove the kernels for baking and snacks. I place the hulls in a dry cast-iron frying pan and stir over medium-high heat for a few minutes until they're blackened. It's a smoky operation, but the aroma is toasty and inviting. The hulls add a hearty flavor to teas, as well as darken them.
Yerba Buena (Satureja douglasii) is a low-growing perennial with wonderful menthol-mint-flavored leaves. A native of the Pacific redwood forests and hardy only to 10°F, it needs a climate that's moist and mild. We grew it in San Francisco, and miss it here in the desert.
HarvestingAromatic oils are most concentrated when herb plants are in bud, so that's a good time to harvest, although you can certainly take cuttings here and there during the growing season. Cut back the entire plant by two thirds. In my region, I get about three cuttings before letting the plants go.
The plants listed here can all be used fresh for tea, or they can be dried first. To dry them, I spread the stems on trays in a warm, airy place and turn them twice a day. When they're dry (four to eight days), I gently strip off the leaves, buds or flowerheads and store them in closed containers.
I cut stalk fennel and coriander when the seeds are barely mature, but before they shatter, and invert them in paper sacks. In a few weeks, when the seeds have dropped to the bottom and dried, I funnel them into storage containers.
Blending and BrewingIn "merry olde England," a tea with one ingredient was called a simple. By all means, start by sampling some simples and get familiar with the various teas. That way, you'll know if you're one of a very small percentage of people that may experience a reaction to one of these ingredients.
Once you discover the art of blending, however, you'll probably prefer the made-to-order tastes and subtle accents you can create. But just as mixing contrasting colors can make a muddy mess, mixing unrelated flavors can be unsatisfying. The trick is to choose one flavor or family of flavors to carry your message. Then, for accent, add small amounts of other herbs or bits of dried fruit or citrus peel, toasted almonds or walnuts, or whole spices. Use about three parts of your dominant ingredient(s) to one part of accent items. Crumble the leaves if necessary to mix evenly, but not enough to go through your strainer or tea ball.
RecipesThe recipes given here call for dried ingredients and yield six cups of tea. Use one tablespoon of dried herbs per cup, plus one for the pot. For fresh leaves or flowers, triple the amounts (seed measurements don't change). Pour boiling water over the herbs, cover and let steep for one to three minutes. Herb teas are naturally pale. Sweetening with honey darkens them and adds body. Lemon juice bleaches the color; try rose hips instead. Peppermint, betony and sunflower teas can take a little milk.
3 tablespoons peppermint leaves
1 tablespoon catnip leaves
1 tablespoon rose petals
1 tablespoon lemon verbena leaves
3 tablespoons chamomile flowers
2 tablespoons lemon verbena leaves
1 tablespoon fennel seed
1 teaspoon crushed coriander seed
1 teaspoon snipped dried apricot
4 tablespoons toasted sunflower hulls
4 teaspoons fennel seed
4 teaspoons orange rind (colored part only)
3 tablespoons chamomile flowers
1 tablespoon bee balm leaves
2 teaspoons rosemary leaves
2 teaspoons crushed coriander seed
2 teaspoons peppermint leaves
Evelyn Gaspar owns a nursery specializing in herbs and desert native plants in Lancaster, California.
Photograph by Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association