Culinary herbs are among the most versatile crops you can grow. They bring heaps of gastronomic flair to the kitchen by distinctively flavoring soups, stews, salads, meats, veggies and ethnic dishes galore. They provide nectar for pollinators, diversify garden habitat and fill the garden with their unique beauty—but that's not all. Many herbs can also be used to make teas, flavorful infusions that can easily add another dimension to the homegrown pantry.
To sweeten the deal even more, you don't even need to go out of your way to grow tea herbs; most thrive in the same conditions as vegetables. All you need is six to eight hours of full sun, a patch of well-drained garden soil, and some seeds or starter plants. Get started on the path to herbal goodness with this list.
Both perennial Roman chamomile (Chamaemlum nobile) and annual German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) make lovely teas. Although German chamomile is often said to be sweeter, both types combine beautifully with cinnamon basil and rosehips.
Chamomile’s small white and yellow flowers are harvested at peak bloom with a chamomile rake, or by using your fingers to pluck off the blossoms in a rake-like fashion. Upon harvesting, dry them for keeping by using a food dehydrator or spreading the flowers on cloth or paper towels in a cool, dry place. Tabletop drying may take 10 days or more, depending on the humidity of the room and how frequently the flowers are flipped (at least once a day, if possible). If using a dehydrator, start checking for dryness in two hours. Be aware, however, that depending on the flower thickness and your dehydrator, it may take up to 24 hours for the flowers to fully dry. You'll know they’re ready to package when they crumble easily between your fingers.
Dried chamomile blossoms are best stored whole and crumbled just before use, as the flavorful essential oils are released upon crushing. Store in a sealed screw-top glass jar or plastic zip-top bag in a cool, dark cabinet. If stored properly, dried chamomile will last six to 12 months.
2. Lemon Balm
Photo by Rachael Brugger
A pungent, lemony herb, lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is both easy to grow and delicious to drink. Most often grown as an annual, lemon balm readily self-sows, so deadheading is a must to prevent the plant from taking over the garden. The leaves, stems and small butter-yellow flowers can all be used to make teas, but the leaves are touted as the most flavorful.
To harvest lemon balm, remove fresh, young foliage with a pair of clean, sharp scissors. Dry the stems whole or pluck off and dry only the leaves. Upon harvest, wash the leaves and pat them dry. Preservation can take place via bunch drying, where a handful of five to 10 stems are bound together and hung upside down for two to three weeks, or in a food dehydrator for one to three hours (or more if stems are included). If possible, do not crush the leaves until ready for use.
Lemon balm can be used fresh or dried—the fresh will have a more distinct lemon flavor, but you may need to use more. Combine it with lemon verbena, lemon basil and lemon thyme for a refreshing tea that can be served both hot and cold.
Photo by Rachael Brugger
Although dozens of flavored mints abound, some are better for making tea than others. Old-fashioned peppermint (Mentha x piperita) is a personal favorite for making fresh mint tea—just toss a few handfuls of newly harvested stem tips into boiling water for five to 10 minutes, then strain, chill and serve. Apple and pineapple mints (Mentha suaveolens and Mentha suaveolens ‘Variegata,’ respectively) are also divine in teas.
Nearly all mints in the Mentha genus can be steeped in hot water while in a fresh state or dried. (Dry it for keeping as you would lemon balm.) Apple mint combines well with cinnamon scented geranium leaves and cinnamon basil.
Because of mint's tendency to run amok in the garden, consider growing it in a container without a drainage hole, otherwise the creeping stolons can escape. Patio-grown container mint is a summer favorite at my house.
4. Pineapple Sage
A late-flowering, heat-loving annual in the North and a perennial shrub in the South, pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) is a must-have for homegrown tea aficionados. The plants grow upwards of 4 to 5 feet tall, providing plenty of fruity-flavored foliage for tea-making. Although the season might not be long enough in the north for flowering, the red, tubular flowers also have a nice flavor and are favorites of the hummingbirds.
To harvest pineapple sage for tea making, simply snip off the stem tips and hang-dry in bunches, or break off individual leaves and dry in the dehydrator for two to three hours. Try pineapple sage combined with dried rosemary, rose hips and orange peel. It also makes a flavorful tea when used fresh.
5. Anise Hyssop
Courtesy Steve Guttman/Flickr
With a licorice-like flavor, anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) is not only a stunning garden specimen and bee- and butterfly-magnet, it's also a treat in the tea kettle. This North American native from the mint family is both deer- and drought-resistant. The dried leaves partner well with other herbs in lighter teas and create a strong licorice-flavored tea when used alone. My favorite hyssop tea combination includes anise hyssop, anise basil, dried fennel seeds and rose hips.
Have more fun with herbs with these HobbyFarms.com articles:
About the Author: Horticulturalist Jessica Walliser is the author of Good Bug, Bad Bug: Who's Who, What They Do and How to Manage Them Organically (St. Lynn's Press, 2008) and co-host of Pittsburgh's top-rated gardening radio program, The Organic Gardeners, on KDKA Radio. Read about her gardening adventures in Dirt on Gardening.