Tea for Free

By Rita Bober

Now that the colder weather has crept into October, I have been thinking of snuggling down next to the warm woodstove and drinking a hot cup of tea. There are many herbal and wild plants we can find in our gardens and yards that make excellent teas. Also many folks grow specific herbal plants to use for medicine as well as to enjoy as teas. Herbal teas are often called "tisane". They are not only enjoyable but good for your health as well. Native Americans didn't just sit around the fire at night drinking water. They usually had warm or hot herbal tea to share. We can do the same.

For most teas, it is best to collect the leaves, flowers, twigs, and/or roots when they are at their best — when they look at the peak of their blooming. Most plants need to be collected before the flowers appear though other plants need to include the flowers for the tea to be effective. These must then be dried either by setting out on a screen in a shady location with lots of airflow. It usually takes a week or two to dry. Leaves and flowers can also be dried in a dehydrator. So hopefully, you have collected some plants/herbs during the summer and are ready to enjoy wonderfully prepared tea. Or you can prepare yourself to look for these herbal or wild plants beginning next spring. I recently found a few plants (cut earlier and with a re-growth of leaves) that I collected this week between the bouts of rain. Below are several varieties of tea that you may find enjoyable and helpful for some medical problems. Once growing in your garden, they will be free for the taking.

Some wild plants:

Wild Raspberry
Everyone is familiar with the wild red or black raspberry plants that grow everywhere. Many also know that raspberry leaf tea is taken by women to prepare for childbirth (an uterine stimulant). But did you know it is also useful for diarrhea and in some areas used as a tonic for the prostate gland. It can also be gargled for mouth ulcers and sore throats. Do not drink tea during early pregnancy as it can stimulate the uterus. The leaves need to be harvested before the fruit ripens.
White Pine
Many of us have White Pine trees in our yard. White Pines are cone-bearing, evergreen trees with clusters of 5 needles bound at the base into bundles on the twigs. The fresh needles make an aromatic tea and are rich in vitamins A and C. Light green needles from spring shoots make the best tea, but older needles can also be used anytime of the year. Steep needles in hot water for 3-5 minutes, then remove. The tea has a light, piney taste.
Wild Bergamot and other Peppermints
Wild Bergamot is a native prairie plant. It is a large mint with showy light purple flowerheads, opposite leaves and square stems. The leaves have a strong minty smell. Both the dried leaves and flower can be used in tea, but because of its strong flavor, I recommend steeping for only 3-5 minutes. There are many other mints all with square stems we can grow including peppermint and spearmint, but be aware, they can take over your herbal garden if you are not careful.
Sweet Goldenrod
There are a number of goldenrods that grow in our area. To distinguish sweet goldenrod, look for leaves that are toothless, smooth and show transparent dots, blossoms found in rays of 3-5. The leaves when crushed, have a sweet, anise-like odor. Steep dried leaves in hot water for 10 minutes. May want to add honey to this tea to enhance the flavor.
Sassafras
A medium-sized tree, Sassafras can grow wild in an area if not controlled. There are three different leaves usually all found on the same tree: toothless, ovate, also 2- or 3-lobed, leaves 3-9 inches long. Sassafras is sometimes called the "mitten" tree because the 2-lobed leaf looks like a mitten. The twigs are green often branched; the mature bark is red-brown, and furrowed. Tea can be made with the root as well as the leaves. The root makes a much stronger tea but the leaves are equally refreshing. To make tea, add the ground roots to boiling water and cover for about 5 minutes. This tea helps to thin out the blood in spring. Or crush dried leaves and steep for 10 minutes. The leaves make a mild, sweet tea. In London, chimney sweeps would drink a warm sassafras tea to sooth, cleanse and protect the inflamed or irritated mucous membranes of the throat from further abuse.

Grow your own:

Catnip
Catnip is not a native plant but grows wild everywhere. Once you have catnip in your yard, you will have it forever. The leaves are jagged, arrowhead-shaped, and gray-green. There are many stems that end with dense clusters of pale violet or white flowers with purple spots. The leaves have a minty but strong odor. Pick before the flowers appear. The dried leaves make a pleasant tea that is good for soothing stomachache's especially good for children.
Chamomile
Chamomile can be found wild or seeded into your herb garden. It has small, daisy-like flowers and sparse, feathery leaves. The leaves and stems are apple-green. Pick the top parts of the plants including the flowers and dry. The tea is good for helping one fall asleep. Do not drink if you are going to drive a car or other vehicle.
New Jersey Tea
Is a native of this area, however, you rarely see it anywhere unless you have planted it yourself. New Jersey Tea was one of the teas used at the Boston Tea Party (the other two were Oswego/Bee Balm and Labrador Tea). New Jersey Tea is a low bushy shrub. It has finely-toothed leaves with 3 prominent veins curving to the pointed tip. The oval clusters of tiny 5-petaled flowers in the upper leaf axils are beautiful to behold. Add the dried leaves to a cup of boiling water and steep for 10 minutes. It has a very mild taste.
Lemon Balm
Is also in the mint family (square stem). Harvest the leaves before the flowers appear. Lemon balm has a strong lemon flavor and should be used fresh for tea. The tea is good for depression, nervous exhaustion, indigestion, nausea, and the early stages of colds and flu. Steep a tablespoon of the leaves in a cup of hot water. Lemon balm can become quite invasive once it starts growing in your garden.
Sage
Use your culinary sage leaves to make a tea. Leaves can be harvested throughout the summer. Sage is traditionally associated with longevity and for restoring failing memory in the elderly. The leaves make a good gargle or mouthwash as well. Use a weak tea (steeped for 3-5 minutes) for sore throats, tonsillitis, mouth ulcers, or gum disease. Caution: sage contains thujone, which can trigger fits in epileptics who should avoid the herb. Fresh leaves to make tea will help improve digestive function and circulation.

I could go on and on to include many more plants such as mullein, strawberry, wintergreen, yarrow, fennel, thyme, hyssop, alfalfa, rose hips, and hops. But I think trying the 10 above will be a good start. After you have dried your plants and kept them in small glass jars tightly lidded in a dark location, you are ready to start. Crush up enough of the herb to make a teaspoon. After you have heated some water to boiling, begin by rinsing your cup with hot water before adding a heaping teaspoonful of the dried herb to the cup. Add boiling water to the cup and cover the cup with the saucer for 5-7 minutes or as directed above. Having the cover on top helps preserve the oils found in some herbs. Stir and strain (remove the herbs from the water). There are various holders to place the crushed herbs in that make it easier to remove them from the cup. Some people keep the herb right in the cup while they drink their tea. There are a variety of choices here. Lemon or honey can be added as desired. Now sit back and enjoy your "free cup of tea."

References

Published in the Michigan Land Trust Newsletter, Fall, 2009