Flavorful teas can be brewed from a great variety of herbs, flowers, fruits, spices and roots taken fresh from the garden. These generally are stronger and more refreshing than the dried packages of leaves stored for long periods on grocer's shelves.
Most traditional Eastern teas trace their origins to the Camellia sinensis plant, an evergreen shrub with varieties native to India and China. These plants are tropicals, however, and need the right climate (Zones 7 through 9) to produce.
They also require patience. It takes two years or more before tea plants produce enough leaves to be sustainably harvested.
Which brings us to herbs, that most familiar of homegrown tea options.
“Herbs, fruits and many other plants make great tea,” said Rhonda Ferree, a University of Illinois Extension horticulturist. “Probably the most common tea herbs are mint, chamomile and lavender.”
Mint is an aggressive plant, so it works best in containers that can be moved indoors for enjoyment all winter, Ferree said.
“Herbs are very easy to grow, have few pest problems and can be used right away,” she said. “Other non-herb plants used to make tea include rose petals and hips, raspberry leaves, New Jersey tea leaves and elderberry flowers.”
Some things to consider when brewing tea grown from herbs in the garden:
• Use three times more fresh herbs than dry, Ferree said. “Dried herbs concentrate the tea, therefore not requiring as much material.”
• Most herbal teas require boiling water or water just below the boiling point for the best brew. Garden-grown herbs often require a longer steeping time, she said.
• Experiment with herbal mixtures. “Lemon verbena and mint make a nice addition to both hot and iced teas,” Ferree said. “Fruit works well in blends. Savory herbs like thyme, sage, rosemary and basil add a spicy taste to green and black teas.”
Some precautions, however: While herbal teas are refreshing and provide numerous health benefits, they can become too much of a good thing.
“If you stray away from the usual herbs, such as mint, chamomile or lemon verbena, make sure that the plant is safe to drink without causing adverse or allergic reactions — particularly in combination with any medications — or worse, that it is poisonous,” said Leonard Perry, extension professor emeritus at the University of Vermont.
“Most advise not to give herbal teas to children, particularly those under the age of 6,” he said. “Some herbs to avoid include lobelia and pennyroyal. Ones to use with caution include ginkgo, Echinacea and valerian.”
Teas can be made from fresh-cut or air-dried leaves and flower heads, Perry said. “Parsley, which makes a surprisingly tasty tea, is best used fresh,” he said. “Both stems and leaves can be harvested for tea.”
To ensure freshness, harvest herbs in the early morning on a sunny day, after the dew on the plants has evaporated, he said.
Choose only healthy-looking leaves and flowers, and nothing that has been treated with chemical pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers.
And “while fresh leaves and plant parts are ideal, they're usually not available year-round,” Perry said.