Herbal Tea, Grown in the Backyard

My potted herbs are growing in abundance these days — basil, thyme, chives, parsley, and, of course, two of my favorites — lemon balm (Melissa officinales) and orange mint (Mentha piperita citrata).  These two perennials grow very fast and easily, as most mint varieties do, but what impresses me so about these beautiful patio adornments is the wonderful tea that they produce.

Even during the weeks of lingering summer heat, I tend to round out each night with a nice cup of hot tea, and lately my two favorite herbs have been keeping very good company with my hot water.  Forget the wealth of store-bought teas that fill my cupboards; the tasty, home-grown variety is what I want.  And I shouldn’t be surprised to have discovered that, once again, the fresh and homemade version of something serves me way better than its pre-packaged counterpart.

Homemade tea can be made from many wild and cultivated plants and herbs, including chamomile, lavender, and most varieties of the mint family.  And quite a few of these plants have wonderful therapeutic benefits.  Click here to see what the University of Maryland Medical Center has to say about the benefits of lemon balm.  My tea is often brewed with orange mint and lemon balm because that is what I happen to have, but tea-worthy plants can be found just about anywhere, and a little bit of research can help you determine what’s good and what’s not.  Just be sure that you know what you have before consuming it, and if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, check with your doctor first.

Directions for Making the Tea

Step one:  harvest the leaves.  Once a week, I harvest my herbs by trimming each stem back to its second set of leaves.  This encourages new growth and a full growing pattern to help the plant produce as many leaves as possible.

Step two:  dry the leaves.  A few stems may be saved to put in small vases or for making tea right away, but the rest of it gets dried for future use.  Don’t worry — a food dehydrator is not necessary.  If you have one, great!  But, otherwise, read on.  Thoroughly rinse the leaves to remove any dirt (and sometimes small bugs) and pat them dry.  Lay the leaves loosely (still attached to the stems) on a rimmed cookie sheet, cover completely with paper towel to keep any dust away, then place the sheet in a warm, dry spot for the herbs to sit undisturbed for a few days.  I use the top of my refrigerator, which is out of the way and otherwise unused.  After three or four days, check the leaves — if they are not dried to a crisp, let them sit for another day or two until all the moisture is out.

Step three:  save the leaves.  Remove the dried leaves from the stems and store them in an air-tight container; discard the stems.  Avoid crushing the leaves — when left intact, they will be easier to strain out later on.  I can’t say exactly how long they will last this way before diminishing in quality — I’m sure it depends on the type of herb and the conditions in your home, among other things.  However, I have used dried herbs that have been stored for at least three months without any sign of going bad.  That being said, the fresher they are, the better they taste, so be sure to follow the FIFO principle of first in, first out.

Step four:  make the tea.  Many people are more accustomed to making tea that comes in a disposable bag, so loose tea may be a bit perplexing.  But don’t be intimidated — it’s truly as easy as can be.  The tea may be brewed with the help of a French Press, a tea infuser (a stainless steel mesh ball), or some tea pots with built in strainers.  If you don’t have any of these products, a simple pot and wire mesh strainer will do.

Bring your desired amount of water just to a boil.  Add about one large spoonful of dried herbs for each cup of water.  Allow it to steep for three to five minutes, or to your desired taste.

The amount of herbs to use and the length of brewing time are totally up to your discretion.  Add just a bit of local raw honey, and you’re all set.  Enjoy!

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