Monday, 5 December 2016

Make your own herbal teas

Dried camomile
With a nice selection of tea-drinking herbs in your garden, you can save quite a bit on beverage outlay - especially if you drink as much herbal tea as we do. From spring until early winter, I use the leaves fresh, which means using a larger amount than dried tea.

Not all tea herbs dry well (there's quite a variability in the different mint varieties, for example, and some of them are pretty insipid after drying) so I only dry camomile, lavender and nettle for use in the winter (and lime flowers and fennel flower heads if I've been on the ball and picked them in season). Sage is available over the winter and some mints, such as Swiss mint, get going very early so we're only talking two months without fresh mint here. 

The tea mint family (in our garden)
Apple mint

  • Moroccan mint
  • Swiss mint
  • Apple mint
  • Spearmint
  • Peppermint/Black peppermint
  • Eau de Cologne mint

Not all mints make good tea. It's best to sample a pot of tea before you take a cutting of someone else's mint variety for your garden. If the name sounds like it would make a weird tea (pineapple mint, strawberry mint, etc.) it probably won't be suitable for tea-making purposes. Pineapple mint 'tea' has a decidedly odd flavour. The one exception to this rule is Eau de Cologne mint, which makes an unusual mint tea, almost like a herbal Earl Grey. The nice thing about the mints listed above that they are good to drink on their own but also make lovely blends. Apple mint, spearmint and black peppermint are very mild-flavoured mints that are particularly good for blending.

Mints are very vigorous plants. I have a special mint bed where they spread merrily, but I find with frequent harvesting they don't get out of control. If you need to contain them grow them in large individual pots. 

Lemon balm

Citrus flavours

  • Lemon balm
  • Lemon verbena
  • Lemon catmint
  • Lemongrass

Lemon-flavoured teas are very refreshing and reviving. The lowest-maintenance lemon tea to grow is lemon balm. It is just as hardy and vigorous as mint and, like mint, it is perennial. Basically lemon balm needs no looking after and you can easily make more plants by splitting one.

Lemon verbena, to my mind, has a more delicate lemon flavour than lemon balm, but it is a tender perennial and needs to come inside in the winter (in Scotland, anyway). It dies back completely over winter and is slow to start again in spring. Choose a sheltered spot in the garden or inside a greenhouse/tunnel/conservatory. Grown inside, it is sadly prone to aphid attack.

Lemon catmint is another carefree tea herb. It's relaxing and best used in 'good night' teas, unless you want to have an afternoon nap. It's also popular with pollinators: ours is mobbed by bees all summer long.

Lemongrass is easy to grow from seed but is only annual in this country. Both lemongrass and lemon catmint are probably best mixed in with other herbs in a tea blend, whereas lemon balm and lemon verbena make excellent tea by themselves.

Snooze teas

Catmint, relaxing for both cats and humans
  • Camomile
  • Lime (linden) flowers
  • Lavender
  • Catmint
  • Hops

Home-grown camomile tea is vastly superior to any shop-bought camomile tea bags. There is a lovely natural sweetness to it. Used fresh, I'd recommend using about a dozen flower heads for a litre pot of tea. Dried, you only need a pinch. Camomile is easy to grow from seed and it also self-seeds (but not always where you want it to). It dries very well. I dry it in a dehydrator, spread out on baking parchment.

Sleep-inducing lavender
My favourite snooze tea is a blend of camomile, lavender and catmint (lemon or common). A good night's sleep is virtually guaranteed! Both catmint and lavender aren't great by themselves but a little adds depth to other teas. The same goes for hops, which have quite a strong flavour.

Lime flowers are well known for their sleep-inducing qualities. This is a good tea herb to forage, though I have planted tilia as part of our hedge scheme so that I won't have to forage too far afield. Once harvested, dry it (in dehydrator or oven or al fresco for those in sunny, hot climates) for use throughout the year. It's good on its own or mixed with camomile.

Other classics
Golden sage

  • Sage
  • Fennel flowers

Sage is a nice health-giving tea, anti-inflammatory and full of vitamin C, and the plant is perennial. The sage flavour can be a bit strong on its own but is great blended with mild mints and/or nettle. You can choose from all kinds of varieties (golden, purple etc.), but the common type is very hardy and easy to grow from seed.

Common fennel is a useful perennial plant, giving salad greens in the spring, flower heads for tea in the summer and aniseed-flavoured seeds in the autumn. The flower heads make a herbal tea with a strong liquorice taste. They are well suited to drying. Fennel tea is best on its own as the flavour overpowers pretty much everything else.

Good mixers
Rose geranium ('Turkish delight' tea)

  • Nettle
  • Rose geranium
  • Rose petals
  • Bergamot flowers
  • Rosehips
  • Hawthorn berries
Camellia sinensis under fleece for the winter

There are quite a few herbs that don't make good teas on their own but really enhance black tea or herbal blends. Nettle is a superb base for herbal blends; it seems to add depth to all other herbs. Pick young leaves (wear gloves) and dry to remove the sting.

For a rose flavour, add one or two fresh leaves of rose geranium (very potent, think Turkish delight) or dried rose petals to black or green tea or a blend of nettle and mild mint. For a bit of Earl Grey flavour, blend in some Bergamot flowers. Rosehips and hawthorn berries don't add much flavour, but they offer quite a few health benefits so it's worth throwing some in.

We also have two actual tea bushes in the garden, of the Camellia sinensis sinensis variety, for making green and black teas. Next year, they'll be ready for the first harvest at last. Can't wait!

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