With the return of warm weather, most folks spend a lot of time catching up on the kinds of outside chores that tend to pile up over the winter months ... and all that physical activity, of course, calls for a little liquid refreshment from time to time. Well, this year, before you reach for whatever beverage is your personal standby, try something a little different! Whether they're served hot or cold, herbal teas—which are occasionally called "tisanes"—are among the tastiest, least expensive, and most healthful thirst quenchers imaginable.
Unlike most domestic and Asiatic teas, which usually contain caffeine, herbal infusions can be made from fresh ingredients that you gather, mix, and prepare yourself. And the do-it-yourself brews generally aren't caffeinated.
Of course, herbal teas are available in packaged and bag form, but somehow the beverages' full-bodied flavors taste most appealing when the drinks are created with ingredients gathered from field, forest, or backyard herb garden. In fact, the act of foraging plants for herb teas can itself be a fascinating, rewarding hobby ... one which will save you money and provide you with a variety of drinks to delight your taste buds.
Collecting the leaves and flowers of the plants you want to use is the first step in herbal tea production. In most cases it's best to harvest (when the flower buds are fully formed but have not yet unfurled) on a sunny morning after the dew has evaporated. If you wait till midday, you'll lose many of the fragrant oils given off by glands in the stems and leaves, since such delicate secretions are often burned away by the sun.
Once the herbage is harvested, tie it into small, loose clusters, hang them up to dry in the sun for about half an hour, then move them to a shaded area. Prolonged exposure to old Sol's rays will, again, drive off some of the plants' flavorful oils and mute the colors of the herbs, as well. (You can, instead, dry herbs in your oven or in a commercial dehydrator as long as you keep the temperature below 120°F to avoid scorching the tender foliage.) As soon as the plants become brittle, carefully remove the leaves and flower buds (the stems can be saved to add aroma to a dresserful of clothes, or to "spice up" a winter fire).
Store the dried blooms and foliage in glass jars with screw-on lids (or in airtight canisters) until you're ready for a cup of tea. Then prepare the herbal tisane as you would any good commercial brew: First crumble the leaves and blossoms a bit with your fingers (to release an extra burst of fresh flavor) then put the "mix" in the bottom of an earthenware or china teapot. The commonly accepted formula for tea prescribes one teaspoon of dried herbs for each cup of water. Next, pour boiling water into the pot, and let the infusion steep for five to ten minutes. (You can brew individual servings of herb tea by simply placing a teaspoon of crushed leaves in a strainer spoon or in a tea ball, and pouring boiling water over it right in the cup.)
If you prefer your tea sweetened, just stir in a teaspoon or two of honey ... and, perhaps, flavor the drink with a squeeze of fresh lemon, orange, or lime. At this time of year, of course, you may want a refreshing cool drink. To chill the tea, merely pour the newly brewed infusion over ice in a tall glass, swirl it until it's cold, and quench that summer thirst!
A Garden of Flavors
Many people, knowing of my interest in "foraged" beverages, have asked me which herbs produce the best teas. Well, personal preferences, naturally, have a lot to do with such judgments. The flavor possibilities are limited only by the brewer's imagination. So I suggest that you simply begin by narrowing the choices down to your favorites. You'll find that a few herbs won't appeal to you, while many will become featured items on your tea shelf. Some varieties are especially comforting when you're tired or depressed, and the zesty taste of others will provide a refreshing lift on a hot, muggy day.
I'll mention some of my favorites here, but you can easily forage for your own discoveries using a good field guide along and the reference at the end of this article. Just about any herb can be used to prepare an acceptable tea, but you must always make your selections with care: Be sure that any plant you take home is nonpoisonous, that it hasn't been exposed to herbicides or insecticides, and that it was growing at least 100 feet away from well-traveled highways.
Members of the mint family are favorites of many tea drinkers. You can often find these common herbs in moist, open areas (such as low-lying meadows or stream banks). Mint tea usually requires no sweetening or other flavoring, and a cup of the brew can provide a soothing after-dinner drink, one which is said to alleviate digestive problems.
Sassafras—another popular "tea-maker"—will steep up into a powerful tonic that tastes especially fine when served over ice! To make the pungent infusion, you'll need to collect the bark of some young sassafras roots. Look for a usually pyramid-shaped tree with light green, one-, two-, and three-lobed leaves. Dig up a handful of the young roots, wash them thoroughly, and pare off the fragrant bark with a potato peeler. Then steep the strips in the normal manner, or—for a more full-bodied flavor—boil them for a few minutes.
Other native herbs that you might like to forage for tea include wild strawberry, lemon balm, tansy, catnip (it's thought to be a good remedy for colic), spicebush, anise, and woodruff. Some of the best flavors, however, result from blending complementary herbs: Strawberry mixed with bee balm creates a savory infusion; grated wild ginger root gives a special "zing" to any tea; and rose petals add a fragrant aroma to a lemon balm drink. You can also produce interesting variations by putting small amounts of spearmint or peppermint, lavender, and wintergreen in your favorite brand of orange pekoe.
In addition to foraging for "wild" tea makings, you may already be growing the ingredients for some delicious herb beverages on your windowsill or in your backyard garden. Although they're more often used to enhance the flavor of home cooked dishes, kitchen herbs make delicious teas too.
Thyme, hyssop, rosemary, and marjoram—all of which are members of the mint family—taste good when brewed alone or in various combinations. Dill makes an excellent after-dinner drink that's rich in minerals, and a sage infusion will sometimes soothe a sore throat. (In fact, long before the introduction of Chinese tea to their continent, Europeans drank sage tea for its alleged ability to ease grief and promote long life!) In your search for flavorful teas, you might also want to taste-test such herbs as horehound and fennel.
As you can see from just the few suggestions I've included in this article, a wholesome tea can be made from about any available herb. So why not declare your independence from those expensive "caffeinated" tea bags, take the family on an herb foraging expedition, and brew up some nourishing, fragrant beverages with your dried harvest? You'll find that whether you sip them individually or in unusual blends of flavors, herbs will produce low-cost, refreshing drinks that'll quench your thirst at any time of year!
A Guide to Common Herbal Teas
- Botanical name: Pimpinella anisum
- Plant description: grows to 2 ft. Gray/brown feather-like leaves. Yellow/white flowers.
- Tea description: Sweet, spicy, licorice flavor from leaves. Good for coughs. Seeds in milk as sleeping aid.
Balm or Lemon Balm
- Botanical name: Melissa officinalis
- Plant description: grows to 4 ft. Heart-shaped, yellowish green leaves 1-3 inches long. Bluish white or yellow flowers.
- Tea description: Lemon-citrus flavor. Excellent mixed with other teas. Helps to reduce fevers.
Bee Balm/Bergamot/Oswego Tea
- Botanical name: Monarda didyma
- Plant description: grows to 30 inches. Dark green leaves 4-6 inches long. Fuzzy red flowers.
- Tea description: Aromatic, minty taste.
- Botanical name: Borago officialis
- Plant description: grows to 2 ft. Leaves with white hairs. Blue star-shaped flowers.
- Tea description: Mild cucumber flavor. Once used as complexion aid. Soothes sore throats.
- Botanical name: Nepeta cataria
- Plant description: grows to 2 ft. Jagged, heart-shaped, gray/green leaves on square stems.
- Tea description: Very strong flavor from flower tops and leaves. Old-fashioned cough remedy.
- Botanical name: Matricaria chamomilla
- Plant description: Feathery green foliage. Daisy-life blossoms.
- Tea description: Mild, apple-like flavor from flower heads, enhanced by drying.
- Botanical name: Anethum graveolens
- Plant description: grows to 2-3 ft. Light green, feathery branches. Yellow flower clusters.
- Tea description: Pungent, anise-flavored tea from seeds (boiled).
- Botanical name: Foeniculum vulgare
- Plant description: grows to 5 ft. Heavy flower heads, droop unless supported.
- Tea description: Licorice-like flavor from leaves or seeds.
Goldenrod/Blue Mountain Tea
- Botanical name: Solidago odora
- Plant description: grows to 3 ft. Leaves covered with small dots. Showy clusters of yellow flowers.
- Tea description: Anise flavor from leaves and flowers.
- Botanical name: Marrubium vulgare
- Plant description: grows to 2 ft. Wrinkled, hair-covered leaves. Whitish flowers.
- Tea description: Musky flavor from leaves and flower tops. Soothes sore throats.
- Botanical name: Hyssopus officinalis
- Plant description: grows to 3 ft. Blue, pink, or white flowers.
- Tea description: Strong flavor. Sometimes combined with cranberry juice.
- Botanical name: Lavandula officinalis
- Plant description: grows to 3 ft. Narrow gray-green leaves 2 inches long.
- Tea description: Delicate, fragrant flavor from flowers and leaves.
- Botanical name: Origanum majorana; Origanum vulgare
- Plant description: grows to 1 ft. White or pink flowers.
- Tea description: Sweet, spicy taste.
- Botanical name: Mentha viridis; Mentha piperita; Mentha spicata
- Plant description: grows to 1 to 2 ft. White to purple flowers.
- Tea description: Distinctive, clear, fresh flavors. Combine will with other herbs. Digestive aid.
- Botanical name: Tropaeolum majus
- Plant description: grows to 12 ft. Saucerlike leaves. Red, orange, or yellow flowers.
- Tea description: Spicy, delicate taste from flowers, seeds, and leaves.
- Botanical name: Rosa rugosa
- Plant description: grows to 15 ft. Hips red, green, and orange.
- Tea description: Fruity, spicy taste. High in vitamin C.
- Botanical name: Rosemarinus officinalis
- Plant description: grows to 4 ft. Evergreen bush. Glossy green leaves. Tiny, light blue flowers.
- Tea description: Spicy flavor from leaves and flowers.
- Botanical name: Rosa species
- Plant description: wide range of colors and fragrances
- Tea description: exotic fragrances. Good blended with other teas.
- Botanical name: Salvia officinalis
- Plant description: grows to 2 ft. Hairy leaves. Blue, purple, or white flowers.
- Tea description: Very oromatic. Soothes sore throats.
- Botanical name: Sassafras albidum
- Plant description: Tree (more shrublike northward). Some leaves mitten-shaped. Pale yellow flowers. Blue fruit.
- Tea description: Flavorful tonic from root bark.
- Botanical name: Lindera benzoin
- Plant description: grows to 12 ft. Yellow flowers. Red berries.
- Tea description: Fragrant, spicy tea from leaves, twigs, and bark.
- Botanical name: Fragaria species
- Plant description: Short, hardy plants. White blossoms. Red fruit.
- Tea description: Fragrant tea from leaves and mashed fruits.
Tansy/Bachelor's Buttons/Bitter Buttons/Stinking Willie
- Botanical name: Tanacetum vulgare
- Plant description: grows to 2-3 ft. Dark green fern-like foliage. Small yellow disk flowers.
- Tea description: Very strong, slightly bitter taste.
- Botanical name: Thymus vulgaris
- Plant description: grows to 10 inches. Gray green leaves. Lavender flowers
- Tea description: Strong, zesty flavor.
- Botanical name: Gaultheria procumbens
- Plant description: grows to 4 inches. Tiny pink or white flowers. Red Berries
- Tea description: Clean, clear-tasting tea from leaves and berries. Combines well with other herbs.
- Botanical name: Asperula odorata
- Plant description: grows to 8 inches. Shiny yellow/green leaves in groups of 6-8 around stem.
- Tea description: Sweet vanilla flavor from dried leaves.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Although most herbal teas are wholesome beverages, some varieties can produce disturbing symptoms if they're taken in excess. In addition, a few herbs contain substances that can be harmful when consumed in large amounts. For those reasons, it's a good idea to limit your intake of any herb-based drink to a cup or so a day and to consult a reliable guide, such as The Rodale Herb Book edited by William H. Hylton ($13.95) or Culpeper's Complete Herbal by Nicholas Culpeper ($9.95).
For information on gathering, drying, and brewing herbs for tea, you might also want to read Make Your Own Herbal Teas.