The field next to our house, with flowers of chamomile, poppies, comfrey, borrage, mint, catmint and sorrel, under a linden tree.When I and several others were helping build the cob house in County Clare a few years ago, we paused for a cup of tea -- the Irish are the biggest tea drinkers in the world per capita, and a “cuppa” is the standard break from work or polite invitation.
As we headed back to the shelter for tea, though, some of the Irish workers did something curious -- they gathered wild plants from the meadow as they walked and chatted, arriving at the shelter with arms full. They quickly rinsed the plants, dropped them into a pitcher and poured boiling water over them, and in a few minutes had instant herbal tea.
Teas can be made from almost any edible leaf, flower or fruit, but a few are particularly well-suited:
- Mint grows wild in forests and hedgerows, and is one of the easiest crops for amateurs – as the saying goes, you drop the seeds in soil and jump back. Its cooling tea is much used in warmer climates like Morocco, helping people without air conditioning stay as cool as possible. If you live somewhere like the Deep South or Missouri, as I used to, you might want to try this – it won’t be the same as central air, but it might help as you cut back – or someday lose it suddenly.
- Clover: The white and purple flowers are ubiquitous across the summer fields of Europe and America, and the flowers and leaves can be gathered for a delicious tea.
- Dandelion makes a good, nutritious tea without the bitter flavor of dandelion leaves. It also acts as a diuretic, as you can tell from “piss-a-bed” and other folk names for the herb. I’m told the roots can also be roasted, ground and made into something like coffee – feel free to write me if you try it.
- Bramble: Our hedgerows and fences are covered in thorny brambles, and not only do they offer natural barbed-wire security all year long and blackberries in autumn, but the spring shoots make a blackberry-scented tea loaded with vitamin C.
- Nettles: I have several plastic bins filled with nettle tea, which I make by picking nettle shoots and drying them – you can do it the old-fashioned way, over a stove or fire, or the modern lazy way with a microwave. Nettle tea’s strong flavor works well for me, as my modern American palate likes stronger flavours, and it can be used for vitamins all winter long. It has many purported medical properties as well, often prescribed in older times for asthma and other ailments.
- Chamomile flowers create a famously relaxing tea, as does valerian.
- Fennel, dill and anise – all licorice-flavoured plants – make teas that help upset stomachs.
- Sage, oregano, thyme and many other herbs can all be made into strongly-flavoured teas.
- Echinacea flowers, which grow in Ireland, are reputed to help stave off colds, although the effects are disputed. If they do turn out to work, though, the flowers are probably better than store-bought pills – they are free and, as it turns out, Echinacea pills often have no Echinacea at all.
- Linden or lime leaves make great tea in spring, when they are shoots.
- St. John’s Wort is said to work as an anti-depressant, although its effects are as disputed as Echinacea.
You don’t need to make just one kind of tea – take a variety of herbs and mix them together, perhaps with a bit of honey or fruit juice. Remember that you generally need a lot of leaves to give boiling water taste and colour – black tea comes from a particularly strong-tasting plant, further strengthened by being smoked, dried and powdered. With living leaves fresh off the vine or stalk, pack them into a jar or container almost to the rim before pouring boiling water over them.
Most of these, of course, make a slightly green tea that tastes very different than black tea, and would not take milk. One exception is rooibos or redbush, which tastes and looks very like black tea, takes milk and is naturally caffeine-free. It’s available in most stores in tea bags, so try it if you feel like tea in the evenings.
You can make your own tea blends out of conventional black tea, of course. Earl Grey, for example, is black tea with a bit of bergamot oil. If you feel experimentitive, add different kinds of juice or plants to regular tea and see what you like. Whatever you make, it will probably be nearly free and better for you than soda or any of the varieties of fake juice on the market.