The Herbal Tea Garden

IMG_3613I’ll bet if I said the weather’s been crazy, lately, almost everyone — no matter where they live — would agree with me. Spring had a rocky start here in the Midwest — kind of dark, dreary, and rainy. Then, when it started to finally crackle and sparkle, we were suddenly hit with temperatures and mugginess that definitely belong in late summer rather than late spring. In other words, we went from April to “Mayvember” to “Junegust”… if you know what I mean.

Fortunately, almost everything we’ve planted on the balcony is well-suited for warm weather and long, sunny days. Everything, that is, except for the poor Shooting-Star Hydrangea which usually gets its cue to stop blooming right around the time temps get into the upper 80s regularly. You can imagine the plant’s confusion when we suddenly reached the upper 90s with no warning! It has very quickly started to lose its blooms, but at least the foliage still looks nice.

Another springier flower on the balcony that’s getting mixed signals from mother nature is our Rocky Mountain Blue Columbine. It sits on the kitchen windowsill and — every April — I eagerly watch as the dead-looking stump in the container slowly starts to come to life, little green shoots appearing at the base. Then, as May begins a steadier warming trend, it really takes off. It usually has its first flowers by the first week of June. This year, the blooms showed up on schedule… too bad spring left so early! I’m hoping, since the plant is in a sheltered spot, the flowers won’t go away too soon (blue flowers are some of my favorite things).

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Everything else has been just loving the unseasonably warm temperatures, though, and I’m breathing a heavy sigh of relief — made heavier still by the unseasonably high humidity! The balcony is littered with blooms of various colors and shapes: Petunias, Gazanias, Impatiens, Delphiniums and cutesy African Daisies (osteospermum).

The African Daisies, by the way, were a recent acquisition — more of an emergency acquisition, truth be told. An entire container of Cosmos sprouts were snipped off at soil level by a very vocal and pesky European Starling, recently. At least that’s who I suspect is the culprit. If not, it’s one of the thuggish, House Sparrows that we’ve seen hanging around. At any rate, with a very prominently placed container empty, I had to fill it with something!

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Aside from flowers, though, I’ve also planted the balcony with a diverse array of culinary/tea herbs. Most likely you’ve noticed that fresh herbs are very IMG_3657pricey at the supermarket and even at farmer’s markets. One easy way to have fresh herbs on-hand for whenever a recipe might call for them is to grow them in containers — especially if you’re not able to have a full-on garden. Almost any herb is well-suited for container gardening. Another plus: most herbs are pest resistant because of their volatile oils. So, this means they’re relatively low maintenance. Most herbs get along well in container gardens, too, because they can tolerate low quality soil (often an issue in container gardening since constant watering washes out soil nutrients).

If you grow a few plants of each variety you choose, you can be sure to always have enough on-hand since you can harvest a little from each plant without completely decimating a single plant. Although, if space is an issue, you can simply plan your harvesting carefully. The main considerations are giving your herb container garden full sun (at least 6 hours per day), a daily watering, and a light feeding about once a month during the growing season. With many herbs — especially basil, thyme, marjoram, and parsley — growth is encouraged by frequent harvesting. So, you IMG_3659can turn almost any meal into a beautifully-garnished affair without guilt that you’re wounding your plants.

Most herbs, too, can be harvested and immediately dried for later use. My favorite method for drying them is to place them on a sheet pan or drying rack in the oven. Amazingly, the heat from the pilot light (ours stays lit) is enough to dry them completely in just a day or two, depending on the herb. If you’re using an electric oven or using a gas oven that doesn’t have a steady pilot light burning, you can set your oven to 125-degrees or lower to get the same effect, just check the herbs every day to be sure they’re drying properly (drying at higher temperatures will damage the oils in most herbs).

Another method for drying is to place washed and dried cuttings in clean paper bags. Seal the bags and place them in a dark, dry place for about 1-2 weeks. Whichever method you use, you know the herbs have dried sufficiently when the leaves break very easily. Be sure to discard any leaves that become discolored or molded. If you place the cuttings in a dry enough area or dry them in the oven, however, molding is not likely to occur, so don’t worry. Store your dried herbs in sealed jars in a cool, dry area (like your spice cabinet).

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I’ve said many times that I love herbs — probably more than I love flowers, if I had to be totally honest. I think they’re very special little plants and I love how most of them appear so deceptively commonplace — like Dandelions! Did you know that a tea made from Dandelion leaves has healing properties?

Yep! Those weeds that are the bane of every suburban lawn can actually be used to treat liver problems, hypertension, and even some mild skin problems. Herbal medicine is fascinating, to me, especially since modern medicine essentially sprang forth from it. And, since I have an affinity for finding the uniqueness in all things ubiquitous, I suppose it’s no wonder that I enjoy finding out that Dandelions are impressive little plants (not to mention, I enjoy making wishes on their spent blooms). We’ve also come to enjoy eating Dandelion greens in salads and even soups (try this recipe).

Another herbal discovery of mine, made last year, actually, was birch tea. Native Americans were the first to discover the healing properties of white birch leaves and bark. Both parts of the tree have pretty potent anti-inflammatory properties among other things. The best part: birch trees are fairly common and they have no side effects (unlike over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications)!

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I wish I could say I took an inspired hike through some enchanting, old-growth forest where I hand-harvested leaves and bark from a majestic, old birch grove. Sigh… but there are four humble birch trees right in front of my building that I harvest from every spring. And don’t think I don’t wonder how many people see me doing that and wonder what I’m up to!

What I’m up to is brewing up a very tasty tea that’s also good for you:

Walk in the Woods Tea
A Tales of Thyme & Place Original
Yields one 8oz cup

    1/4 teaspoon dried sage IMG_3522
    1/4 teaspoon dried birch leaves
    1/4 teaspoon dried birch bark
    1/4 teaspoon dried bee balm
    1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
    1/4 teaspoon dried hyssop
    1/4 teaspoon dried peppermint
    1/4 teaspoon dried rosemary

    Combine the herbs, crush lightly, and place in a mesh tea ball or teabag. Add 8 ounces of boiling water; steep for 10 minutes. Sweeten with honey.

This is my favorite tea for when I need to take a breather and clear my mind. I guess it’s no coincidence, then, that several of the herbs I combine in this tea are good for treating headaches and are known to induce calm. In case you were curious, birch leaves taste like green tea but with an earthy, minty twist.

Bee balm, hyssop, and birch leaves (if you can’t harvest your own) can usually be found at health food stores or anywhere “gourmet” teas are sold. The rest of the herbs are common in any grocery store down the herb and spice aisle.

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~ by Jason on June 9, 2011.

12 Responses to “The Herbal Tea Garden”

  1. Very nice. I have some birch trees (make that a lot of birch) on our farm. Which species was it you harvested leaves from? I’ve got white birch and river birch.

    • I’m no arborist or tree expert, but I’m nearly 100% certain that I was harvesting from white birch trees. Birch varieties can be difficult to distinguish. From what I’ve been able to determine, almost all types of birch trees contain the same oils, but the mature size of the trees, their leaf shape, and their preferred climate tend to vary between varieties.

  2. There are several types of birch trees. Which one are you using? I would like to do some harvesting of my own and give your tea recipe a try. GREAT POST…as always!

    • 🙂 If you’re referring to the birch tree we planted in the yard years ago as kids, that was a River Birch. You should be able to harvest from it with no problem, but do it as soon as possible since the oils aren’t as concentrated after late spring.

      The way I harvest: I cut twigs from the tree with pruning shears; pluck off the leaves, wash thoroughly and spin dry (in a salad spinner); then I wash the twigs thoroughly and (using a vegetable peeler) I strip away the reddish/gray bark (you’re not really interested in the wood, just the bark). You can dry the bark and the leaves in the same manner that I mentioned in the post for drying herbs.

      When making the tea using bark, especially, make sure to let it steep for the full time since extracting the oils from the bark takes longer than from the leaves.

      • Thanks Jason. Yes. I was thinking of the river birch but there are a lot of other trees that I could harvest from. I really, really need to find an arbor guide (printed version) as well as a wild edibles guide (printed version). I was listening to public radio a few weeks ago and I thought it was really interesting that the reporter was walking around a big city (think it was somewhere in Jersey) and finding wild edibles in parking lots, sidewalks and such. They gathered them and made a salad. I can’t help but think if they found such things in the “big city,” I could probably make a great salad out here in the “country!” Let me know if you have any printed guide suggestions. Love Ya! BTW: Mom, I will make some tea and have you over. I actually thought it might be a nice help for the headaches that I know you have so often. LUV YA!

      • I’ve yet to find a good field guide for trees that I’ve deemed worthy of spending money on… though there are some really nice ones out there. I usually go to the library and promise myself that I’ll buy the book next time! I should get one, though — especially since I’m so bad with remembering Latin names.

        Wild edibles is such a fun subject, yes! If I were to pursue munchies in the woods, I’d probably want a really good field guide but also have a really good teacher since sometimes the photos, drawings, and other information in a field guide can be a bit misleading when you compare them to all the many variants out in the wild (especially when it comes to wild fruits and mushrooms).

        Oh, and I have a recipe for “headache tea” that I’ll post soon. Mom would like that one, too, because it smells like flowers! 😀

  3. I don’t remember having tea in December when I was there. 😦
    Sounds really good …
    Love mom

    • I don’t remember if I offered to make any tea or not… we’re usually so busy eating when you come visit! 😛 Honestly, though, if I told you I would make you a cup of tea from leaves I’d picked from a tree outside… would you’ve been interested? I think you would’ve passed!

  4. Oh by the way the Flowers look better than ever really pretty 🙂

  5. Love your post! I too am a herb gardener and lover. One of my favorite things to do is work in the herb garden, which is theraputic in itself. I have never harvested birch bark or leaves and I can’t wait to do this! Thank You!

    • Thanks for reading! 🙂 I really do miss working in the garden; I agree that the very act of tending a garden is therapy. Let me know your experience with birch tea if you try it.

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