5 Herbal Tea Plants You Can Grow
We’re heading into the depths of winter — the first snow scatters through the air, dusting the landscape, and the cold sneaks up our backs. This is also a time when our immune systems may need a boost. And what better for both of these, than a steaming, fragrant hot cup of herbal tea? That’s exactly what I’m enjoying — Lemon Balm, Anise Hyssop, Catmint tea… Let’s explore 5 plants you can grow, so that you too can join in on the pleasure of a hot cup of homegrown tea. We will also explore harvesting, storage and brewing tips a little further down.
What We Mean by ‘Tea’
‘Tea’ is technically made from the leaves and buds of the Tea Plant or Chamelia sinensis. What we are talking about here are technically called ’tisanes’ or ‘decoctions’ — which are the leaves or flowers of herbaceous plants other than Chamelia sinensis, steeped in water. For all intents and purposes, we will refer to these as ‘herbal teas’ and ‘tea herbs’, for simplicity’s sake. Onward…
Annual Tea Herbs
Yes, Basil. Of all the herbs we know and love, basil is probably one that never comes to mind as a tea herb. But, as I learned from my Carribean friend Edyson this summer, it’s a staple tea in many regions of the West Indies. Simply pick the tips of the plant — leaves and flowers — stuff them in a teapot or cup and cover with boiling water. The flavor is outstanding! You can mix it up with varieties like Cinnamon Basil, Purple Basil or Lemon Basil, too. Try steeping it in the sun for several hours, then adding honey and ice cubes for a nice refreshing summertime iced tea!
Chamomile is a classic tea known for it’s calming properties. But most don’t know the flavor and enjoyment of fresh, homegrown chamomile. It’s simply amazing. The fresh chamomile tea is very sweet and refreshing — I often enjoy it in the morning as a great way to start the day — it does NOT make you sleepy either, as many may claim. You can also pick the flowers at their peak and dry them for storage to make teas all winter. It grows about 18″ tall and wide and is an ideal tea plant for the veggie garden, between cabbages or kale. Also try the perennial cousin, Roman Chamomile, Anthemis nobilis — a great ground cover for the perennial garden.
Perennial Tea Herbs
Hoary Mountain Mint
This herb is probably unheard of to most. But, for no good reason. It’s gorgeous, with silvery white foliage, beautiful flowers, and an intense, piney mint fragrance. It grows about 3 feet high and into beautiful clumps. Place this at the edge of a perennial bed and definitely somewhere frequently traveled. A great candidate for dried and fresh tea — I prefer a nice strong cup of this midday.
Anise Hyssop is by far one of my favorite tea herbs. It’s gorgeous purple flowers, amazing sweet, licorice scent & flavor, and ability to thrive in shady conditions. It grows roughly 3 feet high and wide, and is covered in flowers from July to the end of September. Pick the leaves and flowers for summertime sun and iced teas or dry the entire plant for soothing wintertime teas. Anise hyssop deserves a place in every garden.
Lemon Balm has a bit of a reputation — but not as a tea herb. This vigorous member of the mint family grows prolifically — ask any gardener and they’ll likely tell you so. For the herbal tea drinker, this is a blessing. It grows roughly 2 feet high and from 2 to 4 feet wide, depending on how hard you prune it back. It makes a beautiful ground cover, and the leaves and flowers fill the air with an intense lemon scent. It keeps mosquitoes at bay and you can cut it down to the ground several times a season. I love this as a summertime agua fresca (which essentially a tea made with cold water) or a strong wintertime tea. Very soothing and aides in digestion.
Advantages to Growing Your Own
Growing our own herbal tea plants offers us many advantages outside of them being steeped in hot water to warm or soothe our body:
- Beauty – Every plant that can be used for tea is beautiful; either with showy, colorful flowers, interesting leaf forms & patterns or often times, both.
- Fragrance — Same thing. Most plants used for tea have very fragrant flowers and foliage, that when walking through the garden perfume the air with their scent.
- Easy to Grow – Plants used for tea are generally unfussy about soil and water requirements. A generous mulch around their base each spring and fall is enough to keep them lush and vibrant all season long — or at least until harvest time.
- Free & Fresh – Basically, once you’ve purchased the seeds or plants, you’re receiving a return on your investment. Perennial tea herbs will return in the 100′s of percentile — and annuals will too if you save your own seed. Plus, you cannot beat FRESH homegrown tea. That alone, is priceless.
- Food & Habitat — For insects, not humans. This is extremely important in creating an ecosystem within the garden. These herbs provide nectar, pollen and places to make cocoons or hibernate over winter. This alone is one of the main keys in maintaining an ecological garden.
Growing, Harvesting and Brewing
Growing these herbs, as mentioned above, is quite simple. You can either purchase seeds to start your own plants, or purchase starts of the plants from local or mail order nurseries (mail order nurseries tend to offer a wider range of species). When starting from seed, simply follow the nursery or seed packet directions and you’ll be off to a good start. We suggest planting your tea plants scattered throughout the garden — in flower beds, perennial beds, under fruit trees or right amongst your veggies. This allows you take a walk about, harvesting a few leaves of this, some flowers of that, creating an herbal tea medley.
Harvesting is quite simple and done in two manners.
- The first is harvesting the herbs for fresh use. Simply pinch off leaves or flowers (or both for some herbs) and steep them in boiling water.
- The second harvesting method is for storage. For this, harvest the plant at it’s peak — for plants that you use the flowers of, this means when they are in full flower. As a general rule of thumb, the same goes for plants you use the leaves of. Bundle the whole plants by their stem, then hang them upside down somewhere dry — they will be ready to be stripped off the stem and stored in jars in a matter of days.
Brewing — NOTE It is not advisable to boil your herbs, as this can cause the volatile oils to evaporate. As a rule of thumb, put your herbs into a tea pot, cup or even glass jar and cover with boiling water to steep (preferably with a lid on top of your steeping vessel). Steep the herbs in boiling water for 5 minutes for a simple tea — or steep them overnight for a strong medicinal decoction. You can also stuff fresh or dried herbs into a glass jar to set out into the sunlight for sun tea. Or make Agua fresca, a refreshing drink made by steeping fresh herbs in cold or room temperature water for a day. Also, keep in mind that herbs impart different flavors and medicinal qualities in either fresh or dried state.
All in This Herbal Tea
All in all, herbs are plants we want to have around for more than just tea. They’re beauty and fragrance nourish us without any work. They liven up our surroundings. And above all, there is nothing like a cold winter day where you’re enjoying a big hot cup of tea that grew right where you live. That’s the joy of an edible landscape. And please keep in mind that these 5 plants are merely a tiny selection from the, literally, hundreds of plants that you can grow in your garden and enjoy as herbal tea all year long. So go on. Dig in and sip up!
Contact us today if you’re excited about growing your own herbs for tea. We know and work with dozens of herbs and will recommend species that suit your site and your particular herbal-tea-enjoyment needs.