Did you know that your garden is full of tea? Yep. Many attractive herbs and wildflowers we grow in our gardens, as well as everyday flowers and vegetables, can yield satisfying herbal teas throughout the year. As the world around us spins ever faster, isn’t it lovely just to sit for a few minutes with a warm cup of tea to soothe the soul? It’s even better with friends!
Here are some of my favorite herbal teas to grow:
- Mint: for its gentleness and its intoxicating aroma
- Chamomile: for its heady combo of good looks and invigorating flavor
- Hibiscus: for its luscious magenta color and tanginess
- Rose buds, rose petals and rose hips: for their health benefits and lovely fragrance
Plenty of other plants you might not have considered can be used to create teas, including goldenrod (known as Liberty Tea during the American Revolution), stinging nettles, licorice, passionflower, liatris, and glorious bee balm with its tangy crimson crown. Some of the delicious and surprising fruits and vegetables that are perfect for teas include small citrus trees of all kinds, ginger, and corn! Try roasted corn tea—a Korean specialty—and you’ll swear it’s coffee … but at a fraction of the price.
What’s crucial to know isn’t how to grow these plants, but how to harvest and preserve their aromatic parts for the freshest flavor and maximum shelf life. Below are tips for harvesting teas so you can continue enjoying them, even after you put the garden to bed.
When To Harvest
Pick Leaves Early
If you plan to use the leaves of a plant to make tea, the best time to start harvesting is shortly before the plants bud and produce flowers. Once flower production begins, the plants’ energy is all going to the flowers and subsequently the seeds; the result is that leaves fade and become tougher, and lose their most appealing flavor qualities. Be on the lookout in spring: When plants put on their lush first growth, harvest time is near—don’t wait for midsummer.
Flowers Must Be Fresh
If flowers are your goal, harvest when blooms are in their prime, before the petals have begun to soften and fade. Sometimes you may want flower buds, such as rose buds or lavender buds, so harvest the onrush of buds every few days.
Time of Day Matters
No matter what you are harvesting in the realm of herbs and flowers, the time of day you harvest has a direct impact on the quality of the tea. The ideal time is early morning, just after the dew has evaporated but before the direct sun dilutes the plants’ aromatic oils.
Watch the Weather
Keep an eye on the weather map. Because herbs and other plant parts keep best if they are not wet to begin with, try to harvest on the morning after an evening rain. Rainwater washes your plants’ leaves and petals and then dries quickly and naturally without any fuss. Your plants are clean with no handling that might bruise the tender parts.
How To Dry
While you can—and should!—make tea directly from fresh leaves or flowers by macerating the plant and just adding water, it’s also good to preserve a bumper crop for yearlong use. To do this, you’ll need to dry the plant material so it doesn’t spoil.
The easiest way to dry herbs for tea is to hang bundled plants together or dry them on screens, both in a super-dry attic. Then loosely pack the parts you want and store them in glass jars. In arid parts of the country, this method is a snap, but elsewhere may not be so easy. It may take days or even weeks to air-dry some plants, and they require frequent monitoring.
A more precise drying method is to use an electric or solar-powered dehydrator. Never use an oven for dehydrating teas, as oven temperatures don’t go low enough and can destroy much of the flavor and aroma by overheating.
A food dehydrator features temperature control starting at 95 degrees F, which is the setting for herbs and spices. Dehydration to the proper moisture level—about 85 percent generally—takes only a few hours in most cases. Your house will smell wonderful in the process!
Because herbs dry at a lower temperature than many other plants used for making teas, don’t mix batches of plant material.
How To Store
Store teas in glass jars in a cool, dark place. Avoid areas near the stove and in direct sun. Air temperatures over 60 degrees F can shorten the flavor life of a tea, and sunlight makes their pretty colors fade.
Take these extra steps to preserve your garden’s herbal bounty, and you’ll be sipping fresh teas all year long.”
About the Author: Nan K. Chase is a member of the Garden Writers Association and has been a freelance journalist for more than 35 years. She is the author of Eat Your Yard! (Gibbs Smith, 2010) and co-author of Drink the Harvest (Storey Publishing, 2014).