by Ann McCulloh
If there’s one thing I do that consistently lifts my spirits all winter long, it’s making tea with herbs I’ve grown myself.
There’s almost no end to the number of friendly, easy to grow tea herbs that can thrive in an Ohio garden. I can harvest a whole winter’s worth of heartwarming flavors, colors and aromas from a handful of personal favorites grown in a very small space. The following are perennials that are planted one time, and return year after year.
Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) sweet, anise-scented
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) calming, lemony
Peppermint (Mentha piperita) sweet, aromatic, tummy-soothing
Spearmint (Mentha spicata) similar to Peppermint, less intense
Nettles (Urtica dioica) grassy flavor, rich in iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium
Lavender (Lavandula, various types) aromatic, soothing – and pretty!
Annuals Calendula and Chamomile have been re-seeding in my garden for years, moving around at will. I just move the ones that come up in awkward spots.
Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) soothing, earthy sweetness
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) colorful, mildly pungent, gently promotes healing
I purchase the following as plants each year, because they’re frost-tender. If you have a greenhouse or very sunny window (I do not) they can winter over in a pot:
Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) sweetens non-calorically – just a teaspoon per pot is plenty for me!
Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum) earthy, clove-scented and warming
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) fragrant, stimulating and soothing to sore throats (sometimes survives outdoors in zone 6, but it’s not a sure thing.)
As a gardener I appreciate these herbs for their seeming imperviousness to pests, drought and disease. Some of them, like nettles and chamomile, contain so many healthy minerals and nutrients that they support the growth of neighboring plants, and are great for adding to the compost pile, too. A lovely book about growing, harvesting and using herbs from your garden is How to Move Like a Gardener, by Deb Soule of Avena Botanicals; Under the Willow Press, 2013. I purchased my copy on-line at fedcoseeds.com.) Illustrated with gorgeous photos and poetically yet practically written, it’s a book to warm you with thoughts of summer gardens while sipping a cup of homegrown tea.
Harvesting the way I do it is pretty simple: I cut whole leafy stems before the plant flowers, bunch them and hang in an airy, shade place until dry (usually 7-10 days). Then I gently strip the leaves over a sheet of newspaper, and slide them into a glass jar. Flowers are picked in the morning after the dew dries, as soon as possible after they open, and hung up or dried on an old window screen, for a week or until crisp. That’s it, no fancy equipment, no fossil fuels, fans blowers or kits.
I keep each herb in its own separate jar, to use singly (peppermint, lemon balm) or blend at will. Just a tablespoon of lavender, mint or holy basil added to a pot of regular black tea adds a new sensory dimension. Lemon balm, chamomile, nettle and spearmint make a relaxing, restorative bedtime blend. I’m headed to the kitchen for a cup of calendula, rosemary and nettle – reviving after a couple of hours spent behind a desk!