Getting started with foraging
Before you forage, invest in a good guide so you’re harvesting only plants that are safe to eat. Consider enlisting a local foraging enthusiast to help you get your foraging feet wet. Also be certain you’re collecting from areas that have not been sprayed with pesticides.
As with any herb, it’s important to start drinking wild teas in small amounts and see how you respond. If you have a medical condition, are pregnant, nursing, or on medication, be sure to consult with your physician about possible interactions, contraindications, and dosing. The University of Maryland Medical Center maintains a useful database of complementary herbs where you can find information about many herbal ingredients.
Brewing your wild teas
Numerous common plants can be brewed into tasty teas, many of which have medicinal properties. To extract the most of these marvelous compounds, combine a handful of fresh herbs with 1-4 cups boiled, filtered water. Adjust as needed depending on the strength of the herb and how strong you like your tea. Leave steeping for at least several hours, or even overnight. (You can certainly drink some sooner if you prefer, but you’ll get a more intense flavor and more of the beneficial compounds from the longer-steeped infusion.)
You can also steep your finds in room temperature water in the sun—known as a sun tea—for several hours or in cold water for several days in the refrigerator to retain the most of the plant’s compounds. Strain and enjoy!
And don’t forget to dry some of your foraged teas to stock your pantry with nourishing herbs for winter.
Often called bergamot, these bee-pleasing additions to your garden emit a lovely scent similar to the (unrelated) bergamot fruit, used to flavor Earl Grey tea. When American colonists boycotted British tea, they turned to Oswego tea, the beverage brewed by the Oswego Nation from bee balm (monarda didyma). Be forewarned that different varieties have very different flavors. I was disappointed when I brewed my first pot of bergamot harvested from my garden. Its oregano flavor did not make for a lovely tea at all! Stick with monarda didyma if you’re planning to brew tea from bee balm. If you’re not sure what you’ve got, a little taste of the leaf should tell you all you need to know. Use the oregano-flavored leaves for cooking instead. Bee balm’s medicinal uses include relaxation, pain relief, and digestive support.
The twigs and leaves of birch trees can be used to make a flavorful and healthy tea. Birch is considered a good detoxifier and contains anti-inflammatory compounds helpful in treating pain from conditions like arthritis. The flavor of birch twigs has been likened to wintergreen. Choose young twigs and leaves for the best flavor.
A popular addition to herbal teas, clover blossoms add natural sweetness and are used by herbalists to treat hormonal issues, especially symptoms of menopause and PMS. They may also benefit cholesterol levels. Clover blossoms are rich in isoflavones and contain minerals like magnesium and potassium. White clover can be used as well, though its flavor and medicinal properties are considered less potent. Choose the brightest flowers before they begin to turn brown.
Creeping Charlie or Ground Ivy
That notorious usurper of lawns turns out to be a useful tea ingredient. A member of the mint family, creeping Charlie (also known as ground ivy and numerous other names, many of them unprintable) has a strong flavor that many people find bracing. Rich in vitamin C and anti-inflammatory compounds, ground ivy tea is used for treating pain and respiratory illness. While I like the scent in the garden, I find the flavor overpowering on its own in tea. For this reason, I prefer to blend small amounts with other tea ingredients. But this herb is so abundant in most of our yards, and is often the only bit of green in early spring and late fall, it’s worth trying in whatever combination.
Dandelion has a reputation as an effective detoxifier. Many people enjoy dandelion roots or leaves as an herbal substitute for coffee. Harvesting and drying the root for use in tea takes a bit of effort, but its rich flavour and health benefits are worth the work. Mix with the dried leaves for a rich and nourishing tea.
Stinging nettle is a favorite among herbalists, known as an all-around tonic and immune system booster. It’s equally well-known for treating pain, seasonal allergies, and anemia. I love the green flavor of the tea on its own, but it’s mild enough that it can be blended with stronger flavors in your herbal blends. Fresh nettle is such a tasty edible green, you might want to cook your nettle for dinner then use the cooking water for tea. Nettle dries well and can be put up for winter use, when that immune-system boost is most needed.
Pine Needle and Spruce Tip
Though most of us don’t realize it, most pine, spruce, and fir trees have many edible parts. Our ancestors made good use of these conifers to provide vitamins C and A, which they’re exceptionally high in. Unlike most foraged teas, pine and spruce are available all year round, and a good dose of vitamin C in winter is just the ticket for fighting off winter colds. A large number of conifers are edible, though you should avoid yew, ponderosa and Norfolk pine, all of which are not safe to consume. Young needles have a lighter flavor than mature ones, which can be bitter. The new growth of the spruce tree is usually used for making tea. Chop or crush needles to help release the flavor.
Long before your berries are ready, you can harvest raspberry leaves for a wonderful homemade tea. It has a tannic flavor some liken to black tea. Raspberry leaf is recommended by herbalists as particularly useful in pregnancy as a uterine toner, though you should consult with your physician before using it, especially during the first trimester. High in vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, and B vitamins, raspberry leaf tea is also refreshing served cold. You can also collect blackberry, strawberry, and blueberry leaves for tea. The tannins in these teas can interfere with nutrient absorption or cause stomach upset, so it’s best to consume them in moderation.
A lot of us mistakenly got the message that all sumac should be avoided. Indeed, we should give “poison sumac” wide berth. But common sumac, with its striking red berries, makes a tart tea prized by many foragers. The beautiful berries make for a refreshing “sumac lemonade” high in vitamin C and popular in the southern U. S. Be sure to check your plant guide if you’re not sure which is which.
Foraging for fun and health
This list contains a sampling of the ingredients you can forage for your next cup of tea. Many of your favorite flowers can be brewed into delicious teas as well. As you get versed in foraging, you’ll discover dozens of other plants you can use to add variety and nutrition to your daily tea ritual.
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