Once 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.
Best Herbs for Tea
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 -20oF) 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.
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 10oF, it needs a climate that's moist and mild. We grew it in San Francisco, and miss it here in the desert.
Aromatic 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.
Photo by Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association