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Ten easy-to-grow herbs for your herbal tea garden…

By Shannon Cowan Posted May 17, 2016

Herbal tea

“There is tea, and then there is tea,” my grandmother used to say when she was drinking one of the many herbal concoctions I used to serve her during my university days. Raised from proud British stock, she only ever considered one beverage worthy of the moniker tea, and that was the one brewed from the plant Camellia sinensis. Her tea came in tins or boxes, and was first rolled, oxidized, and fermented to a dark chocolate brown before finding its way across oceans and into her pot.

Although many people would still agree with my grandmother, the West’s definition of tea has expanded considerably in recent years. Across the world, teas made from a wide variety of plants have a long history of medicinal and culinary use. Globalization, along with artisanal tea shops popping up all over the map, have helped people see the benefits of consuming more and different beverages in tea form.

But are these aromatic blends gracing the shelves of your local teashop possible to grow at home? Many people certainly think so. Tea connoisseurs with a green thumb and some growing space can now grow enough plants and shrubs to supply their pantries year round. Even if your garden is small and you can’t grow the variety of fruits and herbs available in today’s teas, you can still grow your own streamlined versions bursting with flavor and costing mere pennies.

Starter plants
Listed below are eight staple tea herbs readily available from your local nursery or seed catalogue. These selections will grow well in a wide range of conditions. Additional suggestions and growing tips are also included below.

Ten Tea Herbs to Grow at Home

Mint
1. Mint (Mentha spp.): If you grow one plant in your herbal tea garden, make it a mint. Not only are the mints easy to grow, they hold their flavor well and can be brewed fresh or dried long after the harvest has waned. There is also a multitude of varieties to consider—from eau de cologne mint to good old-fashioned peppermint. Our garden includes the old standbys (peppermint and spearmint), along with some lesser-known varieties like woolly mint (excellent in iced tea) and ginger mint. Harvest the leaves all season long and serve hot or iced. Propagation is easiest from runners and shoots.

2. Lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora): If you are looking for a reliable lemon flavor to infuse your herbal tea mixtures, nothing comes close to lemon verbena. The plant holds its zesty flavor when steeped, carrying its fragrant scent equally well into the pot from the landscape. Growing up to six feet tall, this tropical shrub is a tender perennial that needs protection in colder climates. Overwinter in a greenhouse or indoors in a pot where temperatures plunge. Anything below 40 degrees Fahrenheit will prompt leaf drop, but careful tending throughout the dormant season will see the plant wake up come springtime. Harvest the leaves when the plant is blooming for the strongest concentration of oils. Propagation is easiest by cuttings or root division in spring.

3. Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis): Refreshing and light characterizes the flavor of lemon balm, also known simply as Melissa, which refers to its attraction for bees (Melissa is the Greek word for bee). Vigorous and easy to grow, lemon balm is a staple in herbal tea gardens, grown for its flavor as well as its bulk. A member of the mint family, lemon balm is tenacious, apt to survive a variety of challenging conditions and likely to spread. To limit its colonization of garden beds, confine lemon balm to a small area or grow the plant in medium dry, sandy soil. Propagating by divisions is the easiest way to grow lemon balm. Harvest before the plant sets buds for the best flavor and serve hot or iced.

Rosemary
4. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): Commonly used as a culinary herb, rosemary goes equally well in the teapot. Its piney, aromatic scent compliments lemony herbs like verbena and lemon balm. It goes equally well with mints, bergamot, and sage. Once a staple of the liberty teas that proliferated after the Boston Tea Party, rosemary has fallen out of favor with herbal tea growers. Despite this, we think its time to bring back a plant whose leaves and flowers add a refreshing taste to any herbal tea mixture (and whose Latin form literally translates to “dew of the sea”). Propagate rosemary by stem or root cuttings or exercise patience and plant from seed. Brew rosemary tea with a little honey and lemon for a bracing start to your day.

5. Bergamot (Monarda didyma): Not to be confused with bergamot orange (the plant that lends its aromatic flavor to Earl Grey Tea), bergamot is native to North America where it grows prolifically from Maine to Ontario and south to Georgia. American colonists learned about the bergamot plant—which they used in Oswego tea—from the continent’s first inhabitants. Native Americans have a long history of using bergamot medicinally, taking it both internally as an infusion and pounding the plant into a poultice for topical applications. When consumed as a beverage, bergamot has a minty flavor with citrus overtones. Harvest both the leaves and the brilliant red flowers and steep for 15 minutes before consuming. Propagate bergamot by stem or root cuttings, or by planting from seed.

Calendula
6. Calendula (Calendula officinalis): Although there are a variety of plants that go by the name of “calendula” in the garden, Calendula officinalis (also known as pot marigold) is the best suited for herbal teas. Used medicinally for centuries, Calendula officinalis is still a staple ingredient in creams and other skin care products. Popular opinion suggests its topical effects include calming inflammation and stopping bleeding, while its internal effects include easing constipation. Whatever the case, calendula’s deep orange blossoms are a cheerful addition to teas and salads, tasting mildly of saffron. Harvest the petals of this self-seeding annual in late spring to early summer and watch your teas take on a golden glow.

Cat mint
7. Catnip or catmint (Nepeta cataria): Plant catnip in your garden and you may end up with visits from the neighborhood cats, who like nothing better than rolling in this plant for sport. Catnip has an irresistible attraction for felines known as nepetalactone, and its effects undoubtedly give this plant its name. Brewed in tea, however, catnip is aromatic and minty, reflecting its origins as a member of the mint family and a longtime beverage. Propagate this hardy perennial by seed, root cuttings, stem cuttings, or by layering in freshly turned soil. And don’t forget to protect it from your cats.

8. Roman Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis): Long consumed for its soporific properties, Roman chamomile (which also goes by the Latin Chamaemelum nobile) brings a fragrant and refreshing taste to herbal infusions. Smelling slightly of apple when crushed, chamomile pairs well with mints for a soothing, nighttime brew. The plant’s name comes from the Greek kamai (meaning “on the ground”) and melon (“apple”). Despite these linguistic origins, chamomile more closely resembles daisies, and it is these tiny flowers aloft on thin stems that give chamomile tea its flavor. Harvest them at their peak in June or July, letting some go to seed for a future crop. The plant also propagates well from root divisions.

9. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare): If you are looking for a licorice-flavored tea, fennel is one of the easiest ingredients to grow in the home garden. Cultivated since ancient times for its medicinal properties (fennel is said to relieve flatulence and encourage milk flow in new mothers), fennel is also a common culinary herb. Grown for its stalks, leaves, and seeds, fennel is versatile and inexpensive. To propagate, soak seeds overnight and plant in the early spring. You can also divide the roots of fennel for transplanting, though ensure the plant is well watered and well drained as it establishes its new root system. When harvesting for tea, gather the seeds before they scatter in the fall or trim the fern-like leaves all summer long. (One trick is to place a paper bag over the drying seed head to capture the seeds as they fall.) Crushing the seeds before infusing them in hot water will help release fennel’s delightful flavors which pair well with mints, rosemary, and bergamot.

Stevia
10. Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana): Widely available in extract form for sweetening desserts, stevia is also a fine tea herb now available from most plant nurseries and seed catalogues. Although technically a tropical plant native to South America, stevia does well as a garden annual in colder climates. Purchase plants for a head start or cultivate from seed using bottom heat to encourage germination. When the plant reaches maturity, harvest the leaves and stems and hang to dry. Crushing the leaves before brewing will help release the plant’s intense flavor, said to be 200-300 times sweeter than cane sugar.

Other Favorites

1. Nettle: Pick nettles annually for drying and be sure to wear gloves—the spines will sting unless crushed. We serve an infusion of nettle tea with honey during the winter to fortify iron stores and improve digestion. Read our article: Nettle Tea – How to Make a Natural Spring Tonic
2. Raspberry: Gather raspberry leaves after your berry harvest but before the plants turn color in the fall. Raspberry leaves make a nice addition to any tea for bulk, but are particularly soothing for women and thought to ease complaints related to feminine cycles.
3. Sweet Cicely: Gather the seeds of sweet cicely before they scatter for another licorice-flavored addition to your herbal tea.
4. Sweet Woodruff: Harvest the leaves of this hardy perennial for a light, woodsy taste reminiscent of Darjeeling tea.
5. Rosehips: Harvest wild or from domestic plants for added zing and Vitamin C.

Planting Tips

Seed packets
Most tea herbs perform well if planted in well-drained soil enriched with organic matter. While some herbs (like those in the mint family) can grow in the most challenging conditions, others need careful cultivation to get them started and to maintain ample foliage for an ongoing harvest. A good rule of thumb is to test your soil’s pH and amend if it doesn’t fall between 6.0 to 7.5. Most herbs prefer this neutral range.

You can plant your herbs together in a dedicated ‘herb garden’, or these plants can be interspersed with other garden plantings. Pay attention to the growing habits of each plant – those that spread rapidly will need some kind of containment or barrier. Another option for those with no garden space is to use an elevated herb planter, which is designed for this purpose.

When cultivating herbs from seed, soak the seed overnight and then plant into sterile potting mix. Most herbs will germinate at approximately 70 degrees Fahrenheit and annuals will sprout more quickly than perennials. When the seeds do sprout, keep the soil evenly moist by misting or light watering. Most herb seedlings are fine and tender and won’t do well if subjected to extremes.

Blending and Beyond

After harvesting your tea herbs, the fun part begins. Infusing one herb at a time will give you a sense of the herb’s true flavor, but blending herbs together is a satisfying way to create new and delicious beverages that please the palate. Although everyone likes something different, here are a few favorites to get you started:

1. Lemon balm, spearmint, and chocolate mint: Infuse equal parts in hot water for five minutes. Serve hot or chilled with honey.

2. Raspberry leaves, chamomile, and fennel: Crush fennel seeds and chamomile flowers in a ratio of 1:2 before adding raspberry leaves for bulk. Steep for ten minutes and serve hot (preferably before bed).

3. Rosemary, lemon verbena, and peppermint: Infuse one part rosemary and lemon verbena to two parts peppermint. Steep for five minutes and serve hot.

From roots to leaves to flowers, adding tea herbs to your garden mix will provide you with satisfying savings and high quality beverages—and that’s something even my grandmother would approve of.

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Shannon Cowan is an author, editor, and teacher who lives on six acres of land with her husband, daughters, and backyard chicken flock.
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