Teas to please: Choose your flavors, right from the garden and kitchen cupboard.
Illustration by Susan Strawn Bailey
Fruity, spicy, or aromatic, herbal teas warm the body and soothe the spirit. About ten years ago, I turned to herbal teas when drinking even modest amounts of coffee began to make me twitch. My wake-up call became a bold cup of Red Zinger, which finessed rather than jolted me into the day. Since then, I’ve made the easy, economical, and enjoyable transition from buying herb tea to growing my own.
Many of the best tea herbs, such as bee balm, mints, German chamomile, anise hyssop, and lemon balm, are also beautiful garden plants. Tending a bed or border devoted to these herbs can be as calming and soothing after a stressful day as a cup of the steaming brew or a tall glass of iced tea made from their leaves and flowers.
Growing your own tea herbs, you’re in charge of quality control. You can harvest the leaves when they’re at their peak of flavor, usually just as they come into flower. Many tea herbs can be dried for winter use; storing them in closed jars in a cool, dark place guards against flavor loss. By growing your own, you also can ensure that they haven’t been treated with toxic chemicals or adulterated with flavorless or inedible weeds.
I like herbal teas that smell intriguing and taste as good as their fragrance promises. The following herbs, which grow well throughout much of the United States, are some of the best for both flavor and fragrance. Separately or in combination, they yield a bevy of delightful beverages.
If you like licorice, you’ll love anise hyssop’s fresh, eye-opening flavor and fragrance; good by itself, it’s even better when blended with peppermint. Anise hyssop is a graceful vase-shaped perennial that grows 3 feet or taller and blooms the first year from seed. Its fat spikes of minute, two-lipped purple-blue flowers bloom from midsummer into fall, attracting hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees. ‘Alba’ (‘Alabaster’) is a white-flowered cultivar.
Provide full sun and average soil. Sow seeds indoors in the spring or in the garden after the last frost. Whether you buy plants or start them from seed, you’ll have plenty of self-sown seedlings next spring. Easy to recognize by their purplish, licorice-scented leaves, they are easily transplanted.
Harvest individual leaves or pinch off the stem tips, which will keep the plant shapely and encourage branching. The flower heads are also edible.
The clovelike flavor of the annual sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) may go best with tomatoes, but some of its cultivars and other close relatives are ideal for herbal teas. Cinnamon basil, a handsome plant with purple stems and pink flowers, has a distinct cinnamon flavor, warm and pungent, that is pleasant used alone or mixed with fruity-flavored herbs. Lemon basils, especially the new cultivar ‘Sweet Dani’, taste strongly of lemon with only a hint of clove. The plants grow tall and bushy, bearing light green leaves and spikes of white flowers.
Provide moist, fertile soil in full sun. Direct-sow cinnamon and lemon basils when the soil begins to feel warm to the touch or sow seeds indoors six weeks earlier, but wait to move seedlings outdoors until night temperatures are above 55°F. Avoid disturbing the root ball when transplanting.
Basils provide bountiful harvests throughout the summer and into fall if you prune them frequently to prevent flowering and to stimulate new growth. Apply a balanced liquid fertilizer after harvesting to encourage quick regrowth.
With a knock-your-socks-off aroma of mint, citrus, and a touch of spice, bee balm makes an interesting tea— bold made with fresh leaves and subtle with dried ones. A North American native wildflower, bee balm was embraced by Native Americans and European settlers alike. Both the leaves and flowers may be used for teas, but whereas the leaves are available throughout the growing season, the flowers, with their more delicate flavor, are not available until midsummer.
Like mints, bee balm has creeping stolons, square stems, and opposite, toothed leaves. Stiff stalks grow 3 to 4 feet tall except those of some cultivars such as ‘Petite Delight’, which barely reach a foot in height. Shaggy heads of narrow, tubular flowers in red, purple, white, pink, or lavender top the stalks, beginning about the Fourth of July in the Chicago area. Hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees feast on the nectar.
Give bee balm average, moist but well-drained soil in full sun or light shade. Powdery mildew in late summer can render the foliage inedible. ‘Marshall’s Delight’ and ‘Petite Delight’ are touted as being mildew-resistant, but that term seems to be relative. When powdery mildew strikes, cut plants to the ground; the tops will grow back. To curb rampant growth, dig up established plants in spring. Save a few clumps of the younger, outer growth to replant and discard the rest.
The small white daisies of the annual German chamomile make a pleasing apple-scented tea that’s one of my favorites. Long used as a sedative, the tea contains calming compounds of proven therapeutic value. It also may help alleviate indigestion. If you are allergic to ragweed pollen, however, be aware that you could also be allergic to the pollen in chamomile tea.
German chamomile’s fragrant, feathery leaves grow 2 to 3 feet tall; flowering begins within two months from seed. Because each plant yields only a handful of flowers, you’ll need a lot of plants. Sow seeds in open spaces in the herb garden as well as among your flowers and vegetables.
Provide chamomile with average light, well-drained soil in full sun. Sow a crop every three weeks until mid- or late summer, dusting the tiny seeds over the planting bed and firming the soil lightly. Leave some of the flowers on the plants to set seed; they may self-sow and save you the trouble of replanting next year. Dry some of the flowers for winter use.
With its sharp, sweet lemon aroma and its tendency to self-seed prolifically, lemon balm makes weeding a joy. Every surplus seedling you pull rewards you with glorious fragrance and the ingredients for a lovely tea. Try lightly bruised sprigs in iced tea or blended with other lemony or fruity tea herbs.
Lemon balm’s heart-shaped green leaves cluster on bushy, 2-foot stems. The cultivar ‘Aurea’ has gold-splashed leaves, and ‘All Gold’ has entirely golden leaves. Lemon balm grows fast: a single seedling can become a good-sized clump by the end of the summer, providing a seemingly endless supply of tea makings. Prune the plant back often to keep it shapely, removing the whorls of small yellow-white flowers to prevent reseeding.
Although lemon balm grows best in full sun and good soil, it can grow in poor, dry soil. It’s easy to start the species from seed sown indoors or directly in the garden. You also can divide established clumps or transplant self-sown seedlings.
Among the dozens of different thymes are flavors that complement almost every kind of food, but for tea I prefer the sweet-citrus flavor of lemon thyme, a ground-hugging subshrub clad in tiny, rounded leaves. Golden-leaved cultivars include ‘Aureus’ and ‘Bertram Anderson’. ‘Silver Queen’ has cream-variegated leaves. Harvest young sprigs and remove the leaves from woody stems before brewing. Lemon thyme holds its flavor well when dried.
Provide lemon thyme with full sun and average, well-drained soil. Cut back woody stems by a third or more in spring to encourage vigorous new growth. Start new plants from softwood cuttings or divisions.
Lemon verbena is a South American shrub whose whorls of elongated, richly lemon-flavored leaves are superb in tea. It may grow as tall as 10 feet in warm climates, but elsewhere it is usually grown in a pot and wintered indoors or simply replaced each spring. These plants may reach several feet high, at best. Pluck off individual leaves for tea. A large plant can yield enough leaves to dry for later use; they retain their flavor well.
Place lemon verbena in sun in northern areas or light shade in the South. Give container plants spacious pots filled with compost-enriched peat-based planting mix. Plants brought indoors in the fall usually drop their leaves as they go dormant for the winter. Prune them back and water sparingly while dormant, and they’ll soon resprout. Use insecticidal soap to combat whiteflies and spider mites, common pests of indoor-grown lemon verbena.
Peppermint (Mentha ¥piperita), spearmint (M. spicata), and orange mint (M. aquatica ‘Citrata’) are outstanding tea herbs. All are unmistakably minty, but each also has its own distinctive flavor. Because they all creep rapidly on stolons, give them plenty of room and harvest them heavily. The leaves dry well. Some people plant mints in bottomless nursery pots or wooden boxes or large clay drain tiles set on end, hoping to contain their rambunctious growth.
• Peppermint, a natural hybrid of spearmint and water mint (M. aquatica) discovered in England in a field of spearmint in 1696, has glossy leaves, purple stems, and purple flowers. I particularly enjoy the sweet intensity of the cultivars ‘Blue Balsam’ and ‘Mitcham’. Aside from its use in tea, peppermint is widely used to settle the stomach and relieve gas.
• Spearmint leaves, growing on big, bold, 3-foot stalks, have a flavor that matches their robust habit. I think a little spearmint goes a long way and like it best blended with iced black tea.
• Orange mint varies in flavor from perfumy to strongly citrus-minty. I prefer a clear citrus taste myself. Shop around to find a plant with a flavor that pleases you.
Mints are most flavorful when grown in well-drained soil in full sun; they are apt to get leggy in shade. Divide the plants every spring as described for bee balm. Stem cuttings are easily rooted in potting soil or water.
There are dozens of ornamental and culinary sages, but the most memorable for tea is the fruity-scented tender perennial pineapple sage. This upright plant with hairy green pointed leaves can grow 5 feet tall in warm climates, but 3 feet is more typical in northern Illinois. Loose spikes of tubular red, hummingbird-pleasing flowers open late in the season (sometimes too late for northern gardeners). Both the leaves and flowers can be used fresh for tea.
Provide full sun and moist, well-drained soil of average fertility. Plant outside after the danger of spring frost is past. Plants brought indoors in fall may bloom all winter. If space is at a premium, you can still have pineapple sage in spring by rooting cuttings in potting soil or water in the fall.
The foliage of scented pelargoniums, widely known as scented geraniums, smells of fruits, spices, flowers, or other plant parts. Leaves range in shape from finely cut to full and floppy; in size, from tiny to as big as your hand. Petite, five-petaled pink, purple, or white flowers are borne in abundance in late spring and early summer. ‘Rober’s Lemon Rose’, lemon-scented ‘Roger’s Delight’, and the old-fashioned rose pelargoniums (P. Graveolens Group) are my favorites for tea. Harvest individual leaves or leafy sprigs. Rose pelargoniums dry nicely for winter teas, but other varieties may not retain as much flavor.
Provide average, well-drained soil in full sun. Where summers are hot, plants will appreciate some shade in the afternoon. In frost-free regions, plants can stay outdoors year-round. Elsewhere, set plants outdoors in spring after the danger of frost is past. To increase your stock, you can take cuttings at the end of summer, root them, and keep them in a sunny window through the winter. Use insecticidal soap to control whiteflies indoors.
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