And so, out of necessity (usually medicinal), teas in the United States were
born from what was found growing here. Early teas in this country were often
made from boiled roots and bark and taken with protest at the time of illness or
other malady, like insomnia. Ranging from bitter to flavorless, these teas were
part of the arsenal found in Native American healing and Colonial stillrooms.
And, when the colonists decided they would no longer get tea from China, they started
to think of their medicinal brews as possible substitutes for the pleasure of
drinking Camellia leaf tea. One natural choice for this was
Monarda didyma which
is native to the eastern US. Found growing in great
abundance, it made a rich flavorful substitute for Camellia
Today, "tea" is a multi-faceted word. There are as many ways to make tea as
there are tea drinkers. We mix our Camellia leaves with herbs, fruits, even
yogurt. We enjoy it both hot and iced. And, while you won't be able to grow your
own Camellia leaves, you can grow your own herbs. The addition of fresh herbs to
a brew of black or green tea can make an ordinary occasion festive. Of course,
herbs can be used all by themselves, too. Herbal teas are not only healthful, but
also refreshing; and they definitely don't have to be boring or tasteless. To
make the very best teas, use fresh ingredients, pure water, and a non-reactive
vessel. Your fresh, home-grown ingredients will provide organic herbs that are picked at the
peak of perfection, dried quickly, and stored properly. Since you will be
growing your own, there is no need to keep dried herbs for prolonged periods of
time. Dry only what you will need for the near future or what you will need to
get you through the winter until your plants are producing again. The longer you
hang on to dried herbs, the more oils evaporate and the more your tea will taste
When reading about the history and development
of tea, it seems as though the ritual of drinking tea is
almost more important than the beverage itself. From the intricate Japanese tea
ceremonies to the British custom of high tea, it is clear that throughout the
ages tea has been a center stage event for many cultures. Leave it to Americans
to put it in vending machines and make it with ingredients that are
unpronounceable. While not in favor of mass-produced tea, I do think that making
tea should be easy and enjoying it should fit your lifestyle. There will be
when a quiet cup of tea and a garden seat with a friend will be the perfect play
in time. There will also be times when a nice warm travel mug of tea imbibed quickly on
the way to work will be a life-saver. Think outside the box, and don't just
leave tea for special occasions or occasional rituals.
Nothing says loving like something steamy in your cup. During cold
winter months we tend to keep a kettle on the stove at the ready. It just takes
a few minutes to heat up a batch of fresh water, and by the time the cups are
readied with a spot of honey and tea herbs of choice, the kettle is merrily
whistling its tea time tune. Below are a few tips for obtaining a tasty cup of
steamy herbal tea.
Use good-tasting water for good-tasting tea. Chemically-treated water will
not taste any better after the tea is made. If your water is awful-tasting,
consider installing a
reverse osmosis unit
at your tap. It will pay for itself
many times over when compared to the expense of buying bottled water day after
day, and you will drink more water and have better tasting tea!
The richest flavors come from tea leaves that are gently bruised on all
sides by the hot water. Placing the herbs loose in the cup will give the herbs
the chance to dance around in the water and release their volatile oils. Tea bags
and tea strainers may be convenient but they usually consist of powdered herbs
packed tightly in their little pouches. If you make
your own tea bags, be sure to only fill them half full to allow for as much
swishing room as possible. Fresh herbs should be lightly rubbed between the
fingers before placing in the cup to help release more taste. Larger-leaved
herbs, like Cardamom, can be torn into two or three pieces. Dried herbs should
be milled gently between the fingers or, for stiffer herbs like Rosemary or
Lavender, in a designated grinder at the time of making tea. After the boiling water is poured into the cup, I like to cover
the top of the cup with a napkin, which lets the tea steep. Because herbs don't
really color the water, it is a good idea to sip a spoonful every three or four
minutes to see how the flavor is coming along. The longer you leave the tea
herbs in, the stronger the brew. If the leaves sit too long, the tea can become
too strong or bitter. If the tea seems too weak after ten or fifteen minutes,
then use more tea instead of letting it brew longer. If you prefer to strain
your cup of tea, be sure the second cup you strain into has been warmed.
If you like your tea sweetened, add the sugar or honey to the pitcher before the
tea starts to brew. A quick stir afterwards will make sure that the sweetener is dissolved. Any
coffee-brewing device could be used for making large amounts of hot tea; just be
sure you use it only for making tea or be ready to have coffee-flavored tea.
This is a great way to prepare a concentrate for a crowd too. Adjust the volume
of herbs in the basket and store the tea in the refrigerator until needed. Add
part tea concentrate and to each cup and then fill with boiling water. Make the
concentrate unsweetened and then add the sweetener according to your guest's
preference before adding the hot water. One of my favorite sugars is made with
scented geraniums. Take thoroughly dried
Lemon or Rose Scented Geranium leaves
and/or flowers and pulverize with raw sugar in a grinder. Dried Rose and
Lavender petals work well for this also.
Herbs can also be added to hot milk to create milk teas. Sweeter herbs like
Chocolate Mint and
Anise Hyssop are especially tasty when steeped in hot milk.
This hot milk tea can also be used in place of the milk used in making ice
Iced tea has become so popular that it ranks right up there with soft drinks.
Unfortunately, most of the canned, bottled, or powdered iced tea drinks don't
come close to the true taste of fresh brewed tea. I usually make iced tea in my Mr.
Coffee Iced Tea Maker (big surprise!). I tend to use more fresh herbs in the summer because they are
abundant. Lemon Verbena and
Habek Mint are two of my
favorites, but I am always throwing something different in the basket. There are
no set rules to kind or quantity. This is something you just have to experiment
with. If you are new to herb tea, try one herb at a time. I tend to use a lot of
the herb when I first try it (maybe three tablespoons of fresh herbs per cup) and then
back down from there. But, you could just as easily start with a small amount
(say a teaspoon) and move up.
Herbs make great iced teas by themselves or in combination with black and
green teas and fruit and fruit juices. Herbal tea ice cubes are a lot of fun, too,
especially if you add a small mint leaf or colorful flower to each cube before
pouring and freezing. These iced tea ice cubes add special pizzazz to wine coolers, lemonades, and
But, before you can make that first cup of home grown tea, you have to get in
touch with your herbs. If you have culinary herbs in your garden now, you have a
built-in supply of tea herbs. Almost all culinary herbs have been used for
making teas and many of them have healing properties as well. Parsley, Sage,
Rosemary, and Thyme all make excellent tea. And let us not forget Mint in its
many and varied forms, all with slightly different chemical compositions and
thus slightly different flavors. Each spring I treat myself to new mint pots. I
take maybe half a dozen containers and choose six mints to be my iced tea
companions that year. Each pot gets one kind of mint and is placed where the sun
shines all day and the water is plentiful and automatic.
So choose your tea herbs from any culinary listing of herbs.
At Mountain Valley Growers,
there are over 100 culinary herbs to choose from. Grow your herbs in at least
six hours of sun each day and give them plenty of water. Feel free to snip at
will and bring in herbs at any time for a quick cup. However, to harvest and dry
large amounts to be stored, target the plant for a mass cutting when it is
looking really fresh (with no
yellowing or dying leaves) and
vibrant. This is usually right before or several weeks after bloom. Cutting the
plant back after it flowers will help regenerate the plant and cause it to
produce more yummy leaves. Flowers can also be used fresh or dried. For more
information on how to plant and grow tea herbs be sure to read
The Culinary Herb Garden:
Planting, Maintaining and Using Culinary Herbs.
After your leaves are harvested, make sure to
wash them carefully and then dry them thoroughly. When properly dried, they should crumble crisply
between your fingers. If they are not completely dry when you store them away,
they will mold and have to be discarded. It is easiest to harvest stems and tie
them in small bunches which can hang upside down to dry. Don't let them hang
longer than necessary before sealing them away in a glass jar out of the light.
Label your jars with the name of the herb and the time of harvest. After six months, you will want to give
the herbs the sniff test to see if they are still worthy to grace your cup.
Dried herbs can also be frozen in zippered bags with the air squeezed out. If
space allows, wait to crumble the herbs off the stems until you are going to use them. They
will retain more oils within the unbroken leaves and stay fresh longer.
Whether you invite your friends or sip
in solitude, mix herbs with green or black tea or drink pure herb tea, or enjoy
your teas hot or iced or both, the possibilities for tea time are endless.
The fun of growing, harvesting and preparing tea herbs far exceeds the
simple act of sipping. Your understanding of gardening and using your bounty
will take on new meanings that you will want to share with others.
Below are two of our favorite tea time