Easy Herbal Teas

An herb tea should never be flat and flavorless. Whether it's fruity or spicy, soothing or lively, simple or sophisticated, an herbal tea should have taste and personality. And many gardeners find that fresh, homegrown mint, lemon balm, and chamomile are more flavorful than the herbal ingredients they can purchase.

Below are some of the most flavorful and widely adapted "tea" plants for home gardens, along with tips for harvesting. All of these plants grow well throughout the United States. They are hardy perennials (USDA Zone 5, down to -20F) 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, and prefers moist soil. Both the brightly colored flowers and the leaves, with their complex flavors of citrus and spice, are used for tea.

Chamomile bears small, daisylike flowers that have long been used in Europe for tea. German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) is a 2-foot-tall annual. Roman or English chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) is a lush green perennial groundcover bearing small, yellow, buttonlike flowers. Although many references designate German chamomile as the sweeter type preferred for tea, both chamomiles produce 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 3- to 5-foot-tall 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. Fennel likes full sun. Both the feathery leaves and the seeds are used for licorice-flavored teas.

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) is a floppy 2-foot-tall member of the mint family. The scalloped, lemon-scented leaves make a soothing evening tea and add body to blends as well. It's not as hardy as the other mints, but a rooted cutting will overwinter indoors.

Mint (Mentha) comes in many varieties, all of which have been used as teas. Unlike many herbs, mints will thrive in partial shade, especially in hot, sunny climates. Note, however, that mints can be invasive. Consider planting your mints in containers to keep them from taking over your gardens.

Fresh or Dried?

The plants listed here can all be used fresh for tea, or they can be dried first. To dry them, spread the stems on trays in a warm, airy place and turn them twice a day. When they're dry (four to eight days), gently strip off the leaves, buds or flowerheads and store them in closed containers. 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, funnel them into storage containers.

Blending and Brewing

In "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 who 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.

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