Monday, March 29, 2010

Four Herbal Teas You May Not Know About

From my garden in Delaware:

It's late march here in Delaware, and we've had lots of wet, warm weather, interspersed by a frost here and there, but that's not enough to discourage the numerous plants in the mint family adapted to humid temperate climates: these plants have been growing vigorously and will soon have enough leaves to make the first batches of herbal tea of the year. I took a few pictures of the new foliage of perennial herbs that I use for herbal tea.

These are only a few of the many herbs in my garden; I thought to highlight these as they're all a little outside of the mainstream things that you typically find for sale as herbal teas. They're all easy to grow and, in my opinion they're all outstanding--people who haven't tried them are missing out!

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a plant in the mint family that makes a delicious tea. Its aroma is lemony, similar in many respects to lemongrass but gentler. Not only is this a very pleasing herb, but there is also some evidence it has antibacterial, antiviral, and stress-reducing properties.

Monarda sp. (wild bergamot, Oswego tea, bee-balm) are aptly named. These plants, native to North America, have colorful flowers that attract bees, and the leaves make an outstanding herbal tea that closely resembles the aroma of the unrelated bergamot orange used in Earl Grey tea. They are useful for infusion on their own, mixing with other herbs, or blending with black tea to make something that resembles Earl Grey tea.

Orange mint (Mentha citrata or Mentha x piperita L. var. citrata) is a cultivar of peppermint, which is a hybrid mint of spearmint and water mint. It has been bred for a citrus-like aroma, and while it looks a lot like peppermint, the similarity ends there.

I find this mint to make an outstanding herbal tea with a rich aroma; it also makes a very welcome addition to mint tea blends, adding considerable depth and complexity. Its strength makes it hold its own in blends with black teas. It is also more basil-like in aroma and I find makes a useful substitute for basil in the early spring and late fall when temperatures are too cold to have basil outdoors.

I also tried planting something new:

Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) is a plant native to high-elevation scrub forests in the mountains of Mexico and Guatemala. Its bright red, tubular flowers attract hummingbirds. The leaves make a sweet, aromatic tea strongly suggesting of pineapple; there is evidence from studies on mice that the herb may have antidepressant and anti-anxiety properties.

This herb is an annual in cold temperate climates, but it can take some cold. I'm hoping it's not too early to plant here in Delaware; I bought it from a local nursery that has been growing it outdoors in an unheated greenhouse, and those high altitudes in Mexico can get pretty cold. I planted it in a warm, dry part of the garden, close to the building in order to simulate its natural habitat more closely...we'll see how it does!

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