DIY Food

Herbal Teas to Grow and Drink

May  2, 2012

Every week, a DIY expert spares us a trip to the grocery store and shows us how to make small batches of great foods at home.

This week, Margo True, editor of Sunset magazine and The Sunset Cookbook, shares with us the simplicity of home-grown herbal tea.

When I lived in a Manhattan apartment, I'd have the occasional cup of herbal tea, usually from a tidy paper sachet. It never occurred to me that I could use fresh plants. Not until I started my own little garden in Northern California, and could harvest from my office's garden too, did I realize how easy it was to just pick and steep—and how much more fun, too, because of the variety of infusion-worthy plants you can grow. Just for instance:

Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). Both the blossoms and leaves have a light licorice flavor. It also attracts bees and hummingbirds.
Bee balm (Monarda didyma). Its mildly citrus-flavored pink, red, or pure white blossoms look spectacular in a mug or cup.
Chamomile Snip the fragrant, mellow blossoms of this 2-foot annual to use fresh or dried.
Feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium) Use the mildly herbaceous flowers for brewing tea—skip the bitterish leaves.
Mint (Mentha). Most members of this genus make good teas. Peppermint, orange mint, and chocolate mint are especially tasty.
Nutmeg geranium (Pelargonium fragrans 'Nutmeg') It's all about the aromatic leaves, which really do taste (as well as smell) like nutmeg.

You won't find most of these herbs at the market, but you can definitely grow them yourself. All grow well in pots on the ground (to keep them from rooting and spreading rampant throughout your garden) and need well-draining soil, full sun, and regular water until they've established themselves. (Learn more about getting your herb garden started from Amy Pennington.)

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You can brew a basic herbal tea from any combination of these. All you have to do is add boiling water to your chosen leaves. Start with 2 teaspoons of fresh herbs for each 6-ounce cup of water. Steep for 5 to 10 minutes. If you want a stronger flavor, go up on the herb.

One of my favorite plants to use for tea, though, is lemon verbena (on the left), because it's so wildly aromatic. By itself it makes a wonderful tea, but you have to use it as soon as possible after picking: Like wildflowers, it fades fast (in the fridge, it only lasts a day). Blended with other lemony herbs—slightly minty lemon balm and zingy lemongrass—with some fresh lemon zest thrown in, it makes a fragrant and surprisingly subtle lemon tea. Add black tea, and you get an uplifting version of the Arnold Palmer, a mix of lemonade and tea named for the golf superstar who guzzled it after games.

The Sunset Palmer

Makes 2

2 stalks fresh lemongrass
1/2 cup fresh lemon verbena leaves, plus a few more for the glasses
1/2 cup fresh lemon balm leaves
Zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup brewed black tea (not too strong), cooled

Trim the ends of the lemongrass stalks, peel off a couple of the tough outer layers, and chop the core. Use a good sharp heavy knife to slice cleanly through the core—it's usually still kind of tough.

Put the chopped lemongrass, lemon verbena, lemon balm, and lemon zest in a heatproof bowl—preferably one you can pour from easily. Pour 2 cups boiling water over the herbs and zest.

Let the herbs steep for about 20 minutes (they will smell heavenly). Pour the liquid through a strainer into a pitcher or spouted measuring cup, then stir in the sugar—about a tablespoon, or more if you like. Compost the spent herbs.

Pour the liquid into 2 ice-filled glasses. Top each with about 1/2 cup black tea and put a sprig of lemon verbena in each—its fragrance will add to the pleasure of your sipping.

This recipe is from the Sunset Edible Garden Cookbook.

Save and print the recipe here.

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I'm the food editor at Sunset magazine. Before Sunset, I was the executive editor at Saveur, and before that I worked at the late, lamented Gourmet. I edited The Sunset Cookbook (Oxmoor, 2010), was the main author of The One-Block Feast (Ten Speed Press, 2011), and edited Sunset's Edible Garden Cookbook (Oxmoor, 2012). I love cooking and never get tired of it—even though it's my job.

1 Comment

CookingMomTR May 3, 2012
I have often used fresh herbs to make tea, particularly mint and lemon basil. To improve the flavour, I muddle or tear the herbs before adding them to my black or green tea. Once the tea is strong and dark, I cool it, add honey and lemon juice, and then refrigerate it. I prefer to make it strong and then let it dilute with ice cubes or added water. I will also make a berry version by muddling fresh berries in it. If it is really hot, I use frozen berries in lieu of ice cubes. Looks great!