How to make your own herbal teas

written by Jackie French

herbaltea_wellbeingcomau

I started to love herbal teas the day I discovered they didn’t have to come in teabags, tasting of stale paper and supermarket shelves. If you grow your own herbal teas, you’ll suddenly discover another world, one in which chamomile tastes of flowers and sunlight and lemon verbena is sweeter and more subtle than lemongrass. A home blend of fresh herbs for teas also makes an excellent present for more discriminating friends. If their coffee pot is a favoured possession, just wave a fresh pot of your own brew under their noses.

How to use home-grown herbs

I prefer to use my herbs picked fresh from the garden. That way, the only thing I need do is brush off a stray beetle or two. When the peppermint dies down, the chamomile stops blooming or the lemon verbena loses its leaves in winter, I turn to other teas, like ginger, orange peel, fennel and cinnamon bark, instead.

If you want to dry some herbs for friends or for later use, be sure to dry them well in a hot, dry place. Don’t keep them in direct sunlight for too long or you’ll risk evaporating the oils that provide all the flavour. Timing is essential — if you don’t dry them for long enough they will rot; dry them for too long and they’ll lack flavour. Store dried herbs in cellophane as this allows them to breathe without going stale, and try to use them within three months. A year is the longest they will last.

Great herbs to use

Lemon verbena

Needs: Lemon verbena needs well-drained soil and prefers full sun, though it tolerates semi-shade in hot areas. In cool areas, it’s deciduous, while in hotter places it bears leaves all year. In very cold spots, it needs to be protected from heavy frost for the first year but after that is sturdier and will survive anything from a blanket of snow to a four-year drought.

Harvest: Lemon verbena leaves can be picked at any time but are most fragrant in the early morning and just before flowering. Lemon verbena tea can be drunk hot or cold and is mildly relaxing. The leaves can also be added to equal parts of ordinary tea leaves for a lemon-scented brew. The leaves can also be frozen in iceblocks to add to cool drinks on hot days.

Lemongrass

Needs: This is so easy to grow, as long as you don\’t get heavy frosts. It grows best in rich, well-drained, moist soil or in cold areas in a pot to be brought inside at night.

Harvest: Leaves can be harvested at any time. The white “bulb” or lower stalk is also harvested for Asian recipes. Lemongrass tea is mildly relaxing and is a good drink before bedtime. It’s drunk either hot or cold. Try a frozen lemongrass tea iceblock in cold water.

Mints

My favourite tea mints are peppermint and eau-de-cologne mint. It’s intensely fragrant and great in pot-pourri. Apple mint is a good tea mint, though it can become a weed.

Needs: Most mints, though not all, are moisture-loving and need full sun to semi-shade, though a few will tolerate full shade. Most are incredibly adaptable and if they don\’t like where you’ve put them will spread their runners into a better spot. Almost any bit of mint will grow if stuck in a glass of water or moist soil.

Harvest: Even if you pick all the leaves, more will grow.

Anise hyssop

This may sound like a sneeze, but the leaves make a delicious anise-tasting tea.

Needs: Anise hyssop grows anywhere — in drought, frost or baking heat — and even tolerates semi-shade, though you won\’t get as many flowers. As with all plants, you’ll get more beauty per square metre if you feed and water your anise hyssop bed well. You’ll get blooms by Christmas if you plant seed in spring; cut it back when it has bloomed and it’ll flower again that season, then trim it back in winter for years more flowers.

Harvest: use the young leaves for tea — they have a more subtle flavour.

Chamomile

There are two chamomiles — Roman and German — but for ease, just think of them as annual or perennial. The plants are used in much the same way and taste similar, though perennial chamomile flowers can be just a little bitter, especially when dried.

Needs: Moist, fertile soils. In very hot areas, grow chamomile in semi-shade; filtered light under a tree is best. Both chamomiles grow from seed. Perennial chamomile can be grown from runners as roots form wherever the stems touch the ground. Annual chamomile often self-sows.

Harvest: Pick the flowers to use for tea in the early morning just as they begin to open. Use them fresh if you can or dry them and use within six weeks. After that, the subtle flower fragrance fades.

Ginger

Needs: I love ginger tea, but to grow good ginger roots you need a frost-free climate. Ginger also needs extremely rich, well-drained, moist soil and plenty of sunlight and water. Ginger will give a reasonable harvest wherever you have seven warm and frost-free months, but after seven months the root may become fibrous. In colder areas, you may get a small crop and at least have the pleasure of growing your own. In very cold areas, ginger can be started in a large pot and taken indoors on cold nights and then transplanted when the soil warms up.

Harvest: Harvest ginger root in autumn as soon as the leaves have died down. In areas that have only light or no frosts, you can leave small pieces in the soil over winter — these should shoot again in the spring. In cold areas or where the soil isn\’t perfectly drained, the ginger can rot in the cooler months — keep some of the root to plant next spring. Ginger is usually sun-dried for about a week after harvesting to help preserve it. Ginger root should be stored in a well-ventilated, dry cupboard or the fridge to prevent any further drying out.

Favourite combinations


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Jackie French

Jackie French is a gardener, ecologist, honorary wombat, 2014-2015 Australian Children's laureate, 2015 Senior Australian of the year and passionate believer in the need for all humans to feel part of the earth around them, by understanding the plants that sustain us.