If you’re anything like me, you enjoy tending a large garden. Perhaps you have a plentiful supply of plants growing all over your property. You may have a large variety of trees for beauty, food … or just because they grew there. Or, maybe you’re surrounded by sections of woods that house a tangle of diverse plant life–some that are interesting, and some you just wish would go away.
The world of plants is a fascinating study! Some days, a tiny flower I’ve never noticed before catches my eye in the pasture. Other times, a tree that’s stood on the edge of the woods for years suddenly intrigues me as I recognize its identity. I’ve found that when I take time to become acquainted with the names and uses of the plants that surround me, what I learn is often surprising and exciting.
So many of the plants traditionally recognized to support good health are free for the harvesting in woods and fields. Even the most common trees and plants can have fascinating health benefits. And the plants you already have established in your garden? These, too, have benefits more valuable than you may realize.
For several years now, my family has been making what we refer to as “house tea.” The idea is to gather your own botanical ingredients from the garden and surrounding property to create a unique herbal tea blend. There’s no set recipe. Because it’s freshly brewed each day, it’s constantly changing, based on our taste preferences and what we have on hand. It provides a stimulating way to make use of the plants around us and get them into our diets in a simple, no-fuss manner. Plus, a hot mug of homegrown tea hits the spot at the breakfast table during wintertime!
So, which plants are ideal for making house tea? What are their reported uses, and how do you harvest them? Let’s talk about some of the easily attainable plants for growing or harvesting your own tea. There are many more options than I’ll have room to mention, so I’ll focus on some of my family’s favorites. I hope you’ll be inspired to try making your own custom house tea blend!
Blackberries (Rubus fruticosus) and raspberries (Rubus idaeus) both grow in our garden. While you can use the berries, we generally use their leaves and save the berries for jams and baked confections. Blackberry leaves are a good source of vitamin C and are traditionally used as a remedy for sore throats and other mouth soreness. Red raspberry leaves are nutritious and have many antioxidant qualities.
Blackberry leaves are our staple house tea ingredient. We dry them in quantity after the berries are gone and before winter frost kills them off. Then, we store them in bags in a dry cupboard. You can do the same thing with red raspberry leaves. Or, you can pick them fresh and store them in the freezer.
Blueberries (Vaccinium cyanococcus) are a delicious addition to tea! I also like to use their leaves. Blueberries are loaded with antioxidants, and may help eye health, heart health, diabetes, brain function, and immune support. Just harvest the berries or leaves, and then freeze or dry them.
We grow blueberries in our garden, where they need well-drained, acidic soil and plenty of light. I won’t say blueberries are easy to grow, but once they get established, they’re an absolute treasure. One bush can provide loads of healthful leaves and berries.
Elderberries (Sambucus nigra) are a versatile tea ingredient. Elderberries are loaded with antioxidants, and they’re high in vitamin C, so they can benefit the body’s immune system and help in preventing sickness, such as the common cold. Their flowers can also be used to make tea; I love their delicate, sweet scent! You can harvest the creamy umbels of flowers, which remind me of a lace parasol, in late spring and early summer, or you can pick the ripe berries in fall. The berries can be steeped when freshly harvested, dried, or frozen, but they shouldn’t be consumed raw.
We harvest the berries by clipping off the large clusters, and then we freeze them in plastic grocery bags. When they’re frozen, we gently crush the bag to remove the berries from their stems. (We’ve also used a fork to “comb” the frozen berries off the stem.) Then, we bag up the berries and store them in the freezer to use throughout winter.
Elderberries grow extensively across the United States. These are endearing plants, because they’re so valuable, yet so accessible! They love to make themselves at home in fence rows and hedges. Elderberries can also be introduced into the garden, where they prefer partial sun but can also take full sun. This is a hardy, versatile plant that earns its keep.
I do have a word of caution when you go hunting elderberries. As with any wild edible, make sure you harvest the real deal. Watch out for impostor plants that might look like elderberries to a casual observer. These include American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), water hemlock (Cicuta douglasii), and herculesclub (Zanthoxylum clava-herculis). Avoid plants that are close to a roadside or may have been sprayed. Additionally, when you harvest elderberry, avoid eating the green berries, stems, leaves, bark, and roots, as they are toxic to humans.
Hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa) is another botanical we love. It’s loaded with antioxidants, and it contains a host of health benefits, including managing blood pressure. Plus, it’s delicious in house tea.
We’ve grown hibiscus flowers, but we buy them dried in bulk instead of harvesting our own. These blossoms add a rich color and a sweet depth of flavor to tea.
Peppermint leaves are a classic!
Peppermint (Mentha piperita) is a muscle relaxer. It can help soothe an upset stomach; treat headaches, cramps, or heightened stress levels; and increase blood flow for improved energy and concentration. Peppermint also contains anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antiviral properties.
Peppermint is simple to grow in the garden, where it likes moist soil and plenty of sun. Make sure it’s well-contained, because it spreads freely! You could trade for a small plant. (Any herb-gardening neighbor will probably love to share with you!) You can also start peppermint from seed or, even better, root a cutting in a glass of water. To harvest, just pluck the leaves off to make some tea right away, or dry them for later use. Peppermint tea also makes a refreshing summer drink when served over ice.
There are many types of mint beyond peppermint, such as chocolate mint, spearmint, and pineapple mint. Each has its own unique contributions, flavor, and benefits. You may want to get acquainted with them so you can find your favorite.
Pine needles are a powerhouse of beneficial vitamin C. Indigenous peoples used pine for generations to fend off scurvy when fresh fruits and vegetables weren’t available. The needles contain vitamin A, which is beneficial for eyesight, skin, hair, and red blood cell production. They also contain antioxidants and are believed to improve the body’s immune system.
Pine needles are easy to harvest. Just select needles that are young, brightly colored, and located toward the tips of the branches for a more pleasant flavor. Or, go for the older, more mature needles that grow toward the base of the branches for a more bitter flavor, with a higher vitamin C concentration. Most times, we’ll just bring a pruned branch to the house, take the needles off, and pack them into plastic freezer bags. They freeze beautifully, enabling us to have pine needles on hand anytime. There are a few toxic trees out there that should be avoided, such as yew (Taxus baccata), cypress (Cupressus spp.), and the Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla). The common eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) is a great, recognizable choice to harvest for tea. Note: Pine needle tea should not be consumed during pregnancy.
Rose hips contain vitamin C, so they’re ideal for supporting the immune system. Some studies have shown that they may be anti-inflammatory and help with maintaining a healthy metabolism. They’re typically harvested from rosebushes around the time of the first frost, when the hips have had time to ripen after blooming season is over.
We have a profusion of wild roses growing in our area. They give small but delicious hips, which I enjoy eating right off the bushes. For the best rose hips, many folks recommend using a rugose rose or dog rose (Rosa canina). Rose hip size, flavor, and properties vary depending on the cultivar.
After picking, split and remove the seeds from the rose hips to avoid any irritation they may cause. You can use the hips fresh or dried for tea. Always make sure the hips you harvest aren’t from contaminated spaces, such as near a roadside or an area sprayed with pesticides.
After we’ve gathered all our tea ingredients, it’s time to make house tea! The tea that’s sold in the neat little paper bags, ready to pop into your cup, is premixed. So, if you’d like to have your tea mixed to use at a moment’s notice like those in the store-bought tea bags, thoroughly dry your desired materials and mix them together. Store the mixture in an airtight container, and use a mesh tea ball to brew individual cups of tea.
Our method adds a little bit of a fun, artistic twist to the preparation, because we use a combination of dried and frozen materials. I use a ratio of roughly 1 cup of fruit and herbal ingredients to every 2 to 3 cups of water. This can be tweaked for personal taste. First, I heat water in a pot, adding any frozen fruits (such as a cup of frozen elderberries) early enough to give them time to thaw and release their juices. When the water is hot, but not boiling, I turn it off, pull it from the heat source, and add all the herbal ingredients (such as a handful of dried hibiscus flowers, frozen pine needles, and dried blackberry leaves). The vitamin C and other health benefits can be destroyed by too much heat, so that’s why I steep the tea instead of boiling it after all ingredients have been added. Steeping time is up to your personal preference, and the health benefits of the ingredients reportedly intensify over longer steeping times. For the sake of flavor and time, we steep our house tea for about 3 to 5 minutes.
Adding a tea bag or additional loose tea blend into the pot while the tea is brewing can pack in more flavor and let you use herbs you can’t grow locally. Also, try adding a cinnamon stick, or squeeze in some fresh lemon or orange juice.
To serve, pour it into a cozy mug, add honey if desired, and start sipping. Congratulations! You’ve created a beneficial tea, specially blended with your own wildcrafted and garden-grown ingredients.
Note: Do your research to make sure you correctly identify the plants you add to your house tea, and that you’re foraging in a sustainable way if you’re using wildcrafted ingredients. Consult your doctor before using any of these botanical materials, especially if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, or have health conditions.
Maggie Bullington enjoys living on her family’s homestead in rural Alabama, where she tends plants and constantly learns about the world around her. She’s also blessed to work with her brothers, who make handcrafted outdoor tools. Check them out at Lucas Forge and Wolf Valley Forge.