While using herbs for brewing teas has been increasing in popularity, and is easy if you follow a few simple steps, there are some precautions as well. Chamomile, sage, catnip, lemon verbena, comfrey, scented geranium, and any of the mints–peppermint, orange mint, and spearmint, for example–are all ideal for tea. Rose hips, while not an herb, also can be used.
A few herbs (such as mints and lemon balm) spread aggressively by their roots. Contain them by planting in bottomless buckets or pots sunk into the ground. Control the self-sowers (such as dill) by cutting off the flowers after bloom, before they produce seeds.
Some, like lemon verbena and lemongrass, are not winter hardy in northern climates and so need to be grown in containers or replanted annually. Or try lemon balm instead, which is hardier and also has a lemony flavor. It does well in sun or shade although most of the tea herbs prefer a sunny location.
Teas can be made from fresh-cut or air-dried leaves and flower heads. (Chamomile tea, for example, is made from the flowers, not the foliage. Flowers and foliage of goldenrod can be used for tea.) Parsley, which makes a surprisingly tasty tea, is best used fresh. Both stems and leaves of parsley can be harvested for tea.
Make sure to harvest at the proper stage of growth for maximum flavor and benefit. Harvest leaves in early morning on a sunny day after the dew has evaporated. Gather flowers when in peak bloom and not wilted or gone by. Collect seed heads just as they turn brown.
Use a sharp knife, scissors or pruners to harvest, leaving enough foliage to keep the plants growing. In other words, don’t cut back farther than the second set of leaves. This will encourage the plant, too, to bush out. Choose only healthy looking leaves and flowers, and nothing that has been treated with chemical pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. After harvest, rinse off any dust, dirt, or insects.
If you collect some herbs from the wild (some call this “wild crafting”), be positive that you know what you are picking. If not picking from your property, make sure you have landowner permission. Don’t pick more than about ten percent of a plant stand, to avoid its demise. And avoid roadside plants that have been contaminated with oil and fumes from cars and trucks, and possibly sprayed with pesticides and other toxins. A good rule-of-thumb is to not harvest within 50 feet of a road.
Even if you’re picking plants in your own garden to use for teas, make sure you know without a doubt what you are picking. Familiarize yourself with any look-alike plants. If any doubt, consult online resources, books, local herbalists, and trained garden store professionals.
Some other cautions relate to which herbs or plants are safe to use for brewing teas, whether from your garden or the wild. If you stray away from the usual herbs such as mint, chamomile (made from the flowers), or lemon verbena, make sure that the plant is safe to drink without causing adverse or allergic reactions, particularly in combination with any medications.
Chamomile is a common tea herb but, being in the daisy family, may cause an allergic reaction in individuals allergic to other members of this family, including ragweed. Ginkgo usually is fine by itself but, if one is drinking this tea and taking aspirin, the result might be fatal bleeding or stoke. Some herbs to avoid include lobelia and pennyroyal. Ones to use with caution include ginkgo, echinacea (coneflower), and valerian.
Make sure, too, to use the correct amount, particularly if using medicinally, as too much of some herbs may be harmful. Too much of some herbal teas may cause insomnia and yellowed teeth, to gastric irritation and kidney stones. Most advise not to give herbal teas to children, particularly those under the age of six.
Even common herbs may cause a reaction in a few people. Peppermint, for instance, while generally safe may cause heartburn in some individuals. If, after drinking an herbal tea you notice your health change for the worse, make sure to consult with a pharmacist or your doctor.
You can harvest herbs for teas throughout the season although perennial herbs will need time to build up their reserves before winter so should not be cut any later than a month or so before the first expected fall frost– that’s generally mid-August in cold climates. Annual herbs, or those perennials you are treating as annuals, can be harvested up until frost.
In late summer you can pot up scented geraniums, mints, and other herbs for an indoor herb garden. Just be sure you place the pots under lights or on a sunny windowsill to keep the plants producing. The perennials left in the ground need to be mulched with several inches of organic mulch such as straw, after the last harvest, for winter protection.
Although you can use fresh herbs for tea, most home tea growers prefer to dry the leaves and flowers to store for use throughout the year. There are several ways to do this. Bunches of cut herbs can be tied with string and hung upside down to dry. Choose a warm, dark place with good ventilation. Herbs may mildew or not dry properly if air circulation is poor.
The herbs are ready for storage when the leaves are dry and crackly. Strip the leaves off the stems, crumble in your hands or use a food processor, and store in airtight jars away from direct sunlight. There are special gadgets you can buy to easily strip leaves from herbs, or herb scissors to quickly cut the leaves.
If using screens for air drying, remove the flower heads or leaves from the stems (discarding the stems), and spread in a thin layer on the screen. You can stack several screens, providing you leave a few inches between each one.
If using a microwave, place herbs on a paper towel and microwave on low for 60 seconds. Dry for one-minute intervals until the herbs are almost dry. Then allow to air dry for 24 to 48 hours before storage.
In a conventional oven, spread foliage and flowers thinly on cookie sheets, and “bake” at the lowest possible oven temperature setting for several hours with the oven door open. Stir occasionally. When herbs are completely dry, let cool completely before placing in jars.
Label your jars of herbs with name and date. Store in a cool, dark place to maintain color and taste. Most dried herbs will keep for up to a year, although you should discard them as soon as they have lost flavor.
Making herbal tea is a simple process, requiring little more than boiling water, dried or fresh herbs, and honey, sugar, and lemon depending on taste. Use one tablespoon of fresh herbs or one teaspoon of dried for each cup of water. Place leaves in a tea ball or in your tea pot, pour in boiling water, cover the pot, and allow it to steep. Strain and serve. You can get creative combining herbs (it may take a few tries to get the right combination you like) such as goldenrod leaves and flowers, lemongrass, calendula petals, rose hips, and hawthorn berries.
You will need to experiment with how long tea needs to steep before drinking although, for most blends, three to ten minutes is sufficient. The longer the tea brews, the stronger it will be. One exception is mint, including catnip, which should be steeped for no more than eight to ten minutes as the tannins in the plants will give the tea a bitter taste if brewed for longer times.
Brewing teas safely from homegrown herbs is both rewarding and can save money, and trying various combinations is fun.
Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont
Distribution of this release is made possible by University of Vermont and Green Works—the Vermont Nursery and Landscape Association.