Savoring Summer Iced Teas

You may be surprised at how refreshing it can be to let yourself get a little crazy with the iced tea brews.


Photography by Anybody Goes

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Herbal tea recipes:


When winter’s winds are howling and snow piles up at the door, we don’t hesitate to make a steaming cup of herbal tea to warm our spirits. For many people, summer’s hot, humid days instill a desire for its equivalent: a cooling glass of iced herbal tea. Creating herbal iced teas is no more difficult than preparing hot ones. It’s just a matter of brewing and chilling a double-strength hot tea or steeping herbs in water for several hours in the refrigerator.

With the summer garden at its peak, there are plenty of fresh herbs to choose from to make iced tea. Some herbs immediately spring to mind: the mints, lemon balm, and lemon ­verbena. There certainly are others, including some of the familiar culinary herbs, that provide cooling refreshment as the temperatures soar (or even as they subside).

Mint is an obvious choice. The Roman naturalist Pliny wrote that “the very smell of it reanimates the spirit.” Drinking mint tea is reputed to improve one’s mood, relax the nerves, and calm the digestive system. Peppermints, spearmints, and fruit-flavored mints all can be used to make delicious, refreshing iced teas, but dozens of cultivars in each category are available. To make choosing among them even more difficult, flavor can vary from plant to plant: your neighbor’s orange mint may yield a tea that tastes quite different from the tea you make from your own plants.

Pungent bee balm (Monarda didyma) and hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), both members of the mint family, add depth to a mint tea, and their lovely flowers make a delightful garnish to a frosty glass.

The spicy undertones of basil (Ocimum spp.) lend this mint relative to tea making, whether you use the cinnamon and lemon varieties or one of the others. Herbalists recommend basil tea for relieving headaches, indigestion, anxiety, and ­exhaustion. Put a handful of fresh basil sprigs in a mesh bag and steep it in your bathwater. Now get in. Inhale deeply. Relax.

Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), with spikes of lavender-blue flowers in late summer, tastes of anise and mint. Although aniseed from anise (Pimpinella anisum), brewed with milk makes a good hot drink, anise hyssop, sweet ­cicely (Myrrhis odorata), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), and licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) bring a stronger anise flavor to chilled teas.

Lemon herbs make excellent summertime beverages. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus), and lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla) have a reputation as relaxants. The last of these needs only a brief steeping to yield its rich flavor. Lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus) adds richness to a lemon-herb blend and may also relieve sinus congestion. Lemon basil (Ocimum americanum and O. basilicum cultivars) offers yet another version of lemon flavor. Use the lemon herbs separately, in combination, or with other herbs.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), with its pinelike scent and flavor, may not have occurred to you as a tea herb, but it is stimulating and may relieve sinus congestion caused by allergies. Use just a bit—it’s strong—and sweeten with a little honey. Freeze some of the flowers in ice cubes to decorate your drinks. They have a very delicate rosemary flavor.

Garden sage (Salvia officinalis) need not be restricted to poultry stuffing. Fresh sage leaves have a pleasanter, less camphoraceous flavor than dried ones, and their lemony undertones suggest combining them with other lemon herbs. In fruit sage (S. dorisiana) and pineapple sage (S. elegans), fruity ­flavors predominate, making them excellent tea herbs. The flowers of any culinary sage are beautiful frozen in ice cubes.

Thyme (Thymus spp.) has the ability to blend flavors not only in cooked foods but also in tea. That spicy quality enhances a blend of herbs, but it’s also good on its own. The lemon thymes are especially flavorful. Thyme iced tea has been used to relieve coughs. Sweetened with honey, it is even more soothing.

Marjoram (Origanum majorana) and summer savory (Satureja hortensis) both have a tangy but mellow sweet flavor that combines the flavors of rosemary, thyme, and sage.

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) provides abundant quantities of vitamins A, B, C, and K and freshens your breath as well.

The sky blue flowers of borage (Bo­rago officinalis) are well known as a garnish for cold drinks or as a center for ice cubes, but the leaves are also useful in iced drinks. Their cucumberlike flavor seasons wine-based Pimm’s Cup (see the recipe above) and a sangria-like drink the English call “claret cup.” Salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor) is another “cucumber” herb that may be used for tea.

Bold and dramatic in the garden, angelica (Angelica archangelica) tastes like black tea with a hint of celery. A tea made from the leaves relieves coughs and indigestion. Try serving a glass of iced angelica tea with a slice of rhubarb pie flavored with angelica.

No discussion of iced herbal teas should fail to include ginger (Zingiber officinale). More refreshing than any commercial ginger ale is an iced tea made by steeping fresh gingerroot in boiling water and sweetening it with a bit of honey. Chill the mixture and add a splash of sparkling water just before serving over ice. As an extra treat, serve this iced drink with sugar cookies studded with bits of crystallized ginger.

The plants that give us blackberries, raspberries (both Rubus spp.), and strawberries (Fragaria spp.) also yield leaves with a long history as tea herbs. Their tangy, fruity, refreshing flavor is good alone, in combination with each other, and with other herbs, especially mints or lemon herbs.

Iced teas may also be made from flowers. One of the joys of summer is the period when elder (Sambucus nigra) bears its frothy clusters of honey-­scented flowers. The English make a fizzy ­fermented drink from these, but a simple tea is easier to achieve and still has a delightfully sweet honey flavor. Elder was sacred to the Scandinavian goddess of love.

The flowers of lavender (Lavandula spp.) produce a sweetly aromatic tea that seems to lift spirits and ease tensions. Petals of unsprayed roses (Rosa spp.) provide another exotically flavored and scented tea. Fragrant red rose petals are considered the best. Rose petal or rose hip jam on scones would be a fitting accompaniment to a rose tea. Leaves of rose geranium (Pelargonium Graveolens Group) combine rose and pungent flavors.

The French have long favored a tisane of honey-scented flowers of linden (Tilia spp.), which they call tilleul. The flowers must be gathered while they are still strongly fragrant. Linden trees are attractive landscape specimens that withstand city conditions.

The flowers of various members of the mallow family provide another source for iced teas. Perhaps the most widely used is roselle, or Jamaica sorrel (Hibiscus sabdariffa), a woody shrub native to tropical Asia. Its calyces yield a cooling, astringent reddish tea that is high in vitamin C. The petals of Chinese hibiscus (H. rosa-sinensis), hollyhock (Alcea rosea), and musk mallow (Abelmoschus moschatus) all produce tangy, refreshing teas.

Maggie Oster, who has an ever-expanding herb garden and has written several books on herbs, was awarded a Certificate of Achievement from the Herb Society of America in June.