While many herbs can be used to make delicious herbal tea and tea blends, there are some that I consider essential in any tea garden. After a decade of growing, harvesting, and brewing a myriad of herbal teas, I count on these fabulous five for a single-ingredient herbal tea or as the basic ingredient in a blend.
Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). Known to some as licorice mint, anise hyssop is related to mints and hyssop. It delivers a hint of delicious licorice flavor to tea—a tea once enjoyed as a traditional beverage by the Native Americans of the northern plains. Its tall spikes of purple-blue flowers reach 3 to 4 feet high, and the plant is much loved by bees. Anise hyssop is a perennial hardy in Zones 4 to 9 and grows best in full sun with a rich soil. Easily started from seed, it happily reseeds itself but is by no means invasive. Both leaves and flowers can be harvested for tea.
Bee balm (Monarda didyma). This hummingbird haven with sensational flowers in shades of pink, red, lavender, scarlet, and mahogany has become one of my favorites in both the garden and in tea. Bee balm—also known as bergamot and Oswego tea—is a 3- to 4-foot-tall hardy perennial in Zones 4 to 9. While it grows best in fairly rich, moist, and slightly acidic soil in full sun to partial shade, always give it some shade where summers are hot. You can use the younger leaves and flowers for tea; just don’t forget to leave some flowers for the hummingbirds.
German chamomile (Matricaria recutita). These miniature white-and-yellow daisy-like flowers perk up any tea with their delightful apple-like flavor. Growing 2 to 3 feet tall, this vigorous, self-seeding annual can leap across the garden if spent flower heads remain. You can grow chamomile from seed in full sun and any well-drained soil. Harvest the flowers for tea anytime after the white petals appear.
Lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla). With its fresh lemony scent and flavor, this herb is an all-star in the garden and the kitchen. The aromatic woody shrub can reach to 12 feet if you live in Zones 8 to 11. It overwintered and grew to 6 feet the year after I planted it in my Zone 7B western Oregon garden. In cold climates, you can replant it each year or grow it in a container for wintering indoors by a sunny window. Lemon verbena loves full sun and excels when grown in rich, moist, well-drained soil. Harvest leaves anytime for tea.
Mints (Mentha spp.). You’ll discover a myriad of mints to satisfy any taste. While spearmint and peppermint are always welcomed tea herbs, I prefer a whisper of fruity flavor found in pineapple mint (M. suaveolens) and orange mint (M. aquatica ‘Citrata’). Most mints will take over a garden given rich, moist soil, though both pineapple and orange mint are a bit less aggressive. Curb mint’s aggressive behavior by growing it in a large pot or other contained area. Harvest branches frequently and strip off leaves for tea.