Grow your Own Herbal TeaGrow your Own Herbal Tea
There’s something deeply satisfying about making herbal tea, particularly if you’ve grown the herbs yourself. Whether you’re walking into the garden and picking fresh ones to brew or steeping those you’ve dried for winter, the entire process is a feast for the senses.
“Tea should be a ritual,” says Conrad Richter, president of Ontario-based Richters Herbs. “It should be a time to take a break, sit back with friends or alone, and relax.”
Being naturally caffeine-free, herbal tea is a truly soothing experience. Some people, however, find creating their own intimidating. If that’s the case, keep it simple. “Don’t try for exotic blends until you’re really familiar with the plants,” says Richter. “Start with one or two and then branch out.”
Historically, tea made from a single type of herb was called a “simple.” Richter recommends peppermint, the traditional tea for upset stomachs, or spearmint (a little sweeter than peppermint). One of his favorite blends is lemon balm combined with lemon verbena, something he drinks regularly, occasionally adding a few red clover flowers for a dash of color and its reputed cancer-fighting benefits.
For the more adventurous, Lynda Dowling, owner of Happy Valley Lavender & Herb Farm in Victoria, recommends starting with a base such as five parts mint to three parts lemon verbena. Then, she says, “Play with what you grow,” adding flavor, color, and scent with other herbs and flowers.
Dowling’s favorite blends include one or two parts rugosa rose petals, one part English lavender and perhaps a pinch of chamomile flowers, or pot marigold or cornflower petals, for color.
Under the Sun
A fun, energy-efficient alternative to traditionally brewed tea is sun tea. Take a large, glass jar, add fistfuls of fresh herbs and fill with cool water. Put on a lid and place the jar in the sun. It can steep for hours, getting only better, not bitter, because it doesn’t boil. Be aware, however, that the sun’s rays heat the water only to a certain temperature, which could potentially lead to the formation of bacteria. Here are some precautions, therefore, to follow:
Always use a sterile container
Drink the tea as soon as it’s ready; never let it sit at room temperature.
Refrigerate any extra and use it up within eight hours.
Finally, always discard the tea if it appears thick or syrupy—that’s bacteria forming.
Herbs for teaHerbs for tea
Drying herbs for tea, or culinary use, is fast and easy. Harvest on dry days, preferably in the morning after the dew has evaporated but before the sun is strong, or pick at dusk. Rinse and pat dry, if desired.
While herb bundles hanging upside-down look pretty, this process can be messy and the herbs may attract dust or bugs. Instead, strip the herbs from their stems—which hold residual water—and dry them flat, preferably on a mesh screen or tray. (Richters Herb’s president Conrad Richter says his late mother used a sweater dryer, an ideal tool for the task.)
Sprinkle the herbs no more than two or three layers thick on the screen. Store away from direct heat and light (room temperature is fine), and fluff them occasionally until they crumble when crushed; leathery, pliable leaves are not dry enough to store.
While her blend varies from season to season, depending on what she has most of in the garden, there’s one absolute: no one herb or flower dominates. “You don’t want to take a sip and have people think, ‘This is mint tea with something in it.’ You want people to say, ‘This is great, what is it?’”
Dowling suggests using one large handful of fresh herbs per four- to six-cup (one- to 1.5-litre) teapot. When making tea with dried herbs, use one tablespoon (15 mL) per mug. These are simply guidelines, though, so amounts will vary according to personal taste, just as the strength of the herbs will vary according to their growing conditions.
Avoid making herbal tea in a metal pot, which is reactive and could affect the taste; choose ceramic or glass instead. Richter believes glass pots add to the ritual; they also make it easier to gauge when the tea is ready. He pours him when the herbs drop to the bottom of the pot. Dowling, who favors a glass Bodum teapot, steeps her herbs for only two to three minutes. “Any longer and the tea can get bitter,” she says. She pours out all of the tea, even if she’s not drinking it right away; anything left over is saved for later to be enjoyed as iced tea.
Conrad Richter of Richters Herbs says people sometimes worry about confusing benign herbs with toxic plants. That’s why it’s extremely important to label all the herbs you’re growing with permanent markers—particularly when you’re just getting to know them, and especially if they return the following season—so you’ll be completely sure of what they are. You must be certain of any herb’s or plant’s identity before using it for tea. And all plants used in the kitchen must be free of chemical sprays.