I’m a Seattle-girl to the core, so I’m not giving up my coffee any time soon.
But I also have a big, soft place in my heart for a steaming mug of herbal tea, especially when I can grow and dry the herbs myself.
Herbal tea isn’t technically tea, since it doesn’t contain the leaf of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. But rather than debate the minutia of infusions and tisanes, I’d rather just get to the good stuff: how to make your own herbal tea.
Fresh herbal tea is one of the seasonal benefits of being an herb grower. Last summer I had a pair of big, thriving lemon verbena plants, and when I wanted a lemony tea it was as easy as dropping several leaves of fresh verbena into a mug of hot water and waiting for a few minutes.
Fresh herbs typically have more vibrant, punchy flavors, but for convenience and year round herbal tea enjoyment most people will want to dry their tea herbs.
Typically, 5 or 6 leaves of fresh herbs like mint or verbena are sufficient to make a cup of tea. When using dried herbs, 1 tablespoon of lightly crushed herbs per big mug of tea is a good rule of thumb.
Don’t boil herbs. Instead, pour nearly boiling water over herbs and let your tea steep for 5 to 10 minutes.
Getting The Best Flavor…
…in your dried tea herbs is mostly about capturing and preserving the most essential flavor and aroma compounds.
Harvest At The Right Time
For most herbs harvested for their leaves this is just before the plant starts to flower. When harvesting flower buds, as with lavender, harvest when the buds fatten up, but before flowers open.
The essential oil components of most herbs are highest in the morning. Ideally, cut the herb after any nighttime moisture has dried, but before the day heats up.
To preserve the best flavor and aroma, dry your tea herbs very gently as whole leaves right on the stem.
I tie several stems of cut herbs together into a bundle, then hang the bundle upside down someplace shaded until the herbs are shatteringly crisp.
I have a covered back patio that has good airflow but doesn’t get hit with direct sun that’s perfect for drying herbs. I’ve also tied bundles to cabinet pulls in my kitchen to dry, and hung herbs from shelves in the pantry and garage.
You can also dry herbs flat, in a single layer on a mesh screen. Again, you want good airflow and to keep the herbs out of direct sunlight.
I don’t bother using my food dehydrator for herbs, but if you harvest herbs when it’s raining or very high humidity (try not too!) you might need to. Use the lowest possibly temperature setting, and pull your herbs as soon as they are crisp.
A “simple” is an herbal tea made from just one herb. I think the reasoning on the name is pretty obvious. Simples are a great way to begin your DIY Tea Adventure.
Great single herb teas include:
- Lemon Balm
- Lemon Verbena
- Raspberry Leaf
- Chocolate Mint
Blend It Up
Here’s where it gets fun. By combining multiple herbs into a blend, you can make your own unique herbal tea blends.
When designing your herbal tea blend, it simplifies things to think it terms of flavor profiles. Please note these guidelines are given from a culinary perspective. There are herbal-medicinal situations where people might choose to make an pure infusion of dandelion, for example. I’m not suggesting that’s a bad idea, I just don’t think it’s the most tasty.
A good solid base for a tea, the mints are calming, cooling and refreshing, all at once. Use a single mint or a blend of several. The mints can make up to 100% of your herbal tea blend.
- Chocolate Mint
- Orange Mint
- And many, many more. Use your favorite, selecting for big, strong mints that can stand up to drying.
Like the mints, citrus herbs are easy-going and play well with other, so they make a good base flavor for a herbal tea. When dried, the citrus herbs loose some of their fresh punchiness. They can be used, singly or blended together at up to 100% of your blend.
- Lemon Balm
- Lemon Verbena
- Lemon Thyme
You can add a ripe, berry-like quality to a tea without using actual berries. Both leaves and blossoms of raspberry, blackberry and strawberry plants add mild fruitiness to teas, and raspberry and blackberry leaves have a tannin profile similar to black tea, which makes them an excellent base for a caffeine free herbal tea that taste more like, you know, real tea.
I typically use the leaf, because I want those blossoms to become berries. Use up to 100% as a base, or blend at around 50% equally with mild florals and mints for a soothing brew.
- Raspberry Leaf and/or Blossom
- Blackberry Leaf and/or Blossom
- Strawberry Leaf and/or Blossom
Although all these have a flowery quality, they are a diverse group in terms of strength, lavender and rose petal should be used in small quantities – 5% to perhaps 10% of a blend – until you are sure you like the flavor they give. Too much rose or lavender is a sure fire way to make a tea taste like grandma’s soap.
Elderflower and chamomile are much more versatile, and can be used up to 100% in a tea, though I think really lovely results are achieved by blending elderflower blossom at 50% with blackberry leaf.
- Rose Petal
- Elderflower Blossom
- Chamomile Blossom
A certain commercial tea brand has a whole series of teas called “Zingers.” Well, the zing in zingers comes from hibiscus blossoms. Both hibiscus and rose hip are very high in Vitamin C, and add a pleasant puckery, floral-citrus flavor to teas. They also both add a gorgeous pink hue to your cup. If you are looking to ward off scurvy or battle the common cold, either can be made at 100% as a simple, but I think they’re best at about 25% to 50% of a tea blend.
- Rose Hips
Here’s a flavor profile that calls for a light hand. The resinous, citrus and pine quality of these ingredients can add a deep, almost mysterious and wintery quality to an herb blend, or they can make you think you’re licking an evergreen scented car air freshener. Try the resins at up to about 10% in a blend made mostly of mint, with perhaps a little citrus added to lighten things up. If you like that resin note, go heavier.
- Pine Needle – While most pine needles are safe to steep, certain varieties of pine are toxic or can cause miscarriage in pregnant women. Make sure you can properly identify safe varieties before consuming.
- Fir Needle
Mild and generally medicinal, these herbs typically add a fresh hay or cut grass flavor to tea. They are nice in the background, at about 25% of an herbal blend of mostly citrus and mint. The resins and strong florals can accent the greens very well.
- Sweet Woodruff
- Comfrey Leaf – check with a qualified herbalist or your doctor before using comfrey internally. Comfrey contains compounds that can cause liver damage.
Stevia is called “sweet leaf” for good reason – chewing on it gives you a burst of slightly licoricey sweetness. I grow a stevia plant in a pot about every other year, when I remember to, and the dried leaves are an excellent addition to tea blends, especially with fruity and minty base herbs. Fennel and the basils aren’t nearly so powerful, but still contribute a nice green, mild licorice, sweet background note to tea. Use just a bit of stevia, and up to 50% of the other sweet herbs.
- Stevia Leaf
- Bronze Fennel
- Sweet Basil
- Holy Basil
- Thai Basil
- Anise Hyssop
These guys aren’t so much a flavor category as an effect category. The soothers are added to calm you down, relax you and get you ready to sleep.
With the exception of chamomile, which is mild enough for regular use as a single-herb simple, all these herbs can act powerfully enough upon the central nervous system that side effects can be dangerous. That’s not to say you should never use them – just talk to a knowledgeable herbalist first about dose and be respectful.
- Valerian Root
- Hop Blossom
- Passiflora Blossom
- Linden Flower
Adding dried fruit, berries and spices to your herbal tea opens up whole new worlds of flavor potential.
Pretty much any berry tastes great in tea. Dry, then chop into small pieces as needed.
Larger fruit can be peeled, cored or pitted as needed, cut into bite-sized pieces and dehydrated in pieces.
These are a great addition to tea blends, but go easy – spices infuse strong and fast; herbs are slower. If you get the blend wrong you might lose your herbs in the mix. You can find the right flavor for you by adding spices to single mugs of base teas rather than mixing a big batch all at once.
Excellent tea spices include the sweet and cookie spices, along with anything citrus-derived.
- Orange peel
- Lemon peel
- Fennel Seed
- Star Anise
DIY Tea Recipes
Want a little guidance in putting it all together? Here are a few herbal tea blends I’ve made and enjoyed.
Simple Everyday Herbal Tea
I always have way too much of both these base herbs, but luckily they make a mild and easy drinking everyday tea.
- A base of equal parts lemon balm and peppermint
- Just a bit of rosemary
Basic Fruity Zinger Tea
A zinger-y hibiscus base can be easily modified. Just add dried fruit, berries or spices as you like.
- A base of equal parts hibiscus, rose hips, blackberry leaf and raspberry leaf
- A bit of dried lemon peel and stevia
- Dried berries, fruit, and spices to make it your own
Cold and Flu Fighter
Long on Vitamin C, this is a good one to make up in the fall when cold season hits.
- A base of equal parts lemon balm, rosehips, hibiscus, anise hyssop and elderberries.
- A bit of stevia for sweetening and a teeny pinch of cayenne pepper if you can handle it.
Bad belly? Try this. Mostly mint, with a good dose of ginger, this helps with digestion.
- A base of about 60% peppermint, 20% raspberry leaves and 20% anise hyssop
- A generous addition of dried ginger and a bit of dried orange peel.
Trouble With The Lady Parts Tea
Raspberry leaves are a traditional cure-all for pretty much any female-specific complaint. PMS? Menstrual cramps? Morning sickness? Untoned uterus (huh)? If it’s specific to the female anatomy, chances are raspberry leaf will be recommended.
- A base of 100% raspberry leaf
- Stevia, to sweeten and a good pinch of dried willow bark (optional, for pain relief – the pain reliever in aspirin is derived from willow bark.)
- A giant chocolate bar. (Serve this on the side. It has nothing to do with the tea, but it is also medicinal for lady parts trouble. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)
Chamomile tea is my favorite mild herbal sedative. I never worry if the dose is off. Because we grow hops and use them in homebrewing, I’ve made this tea with and without hops. Hops do conk you out, and are also pretty bitter. Use at your own discretion.
- A base of 50% chamomile flowers, 25% spearmint and 25% lemon verbena
- Stevia to sweeten and a small pinch of dried hop blossoms (optional)
–>Your Favorite Here<–
Seriously, herbal tea blends are easy! Don’t overcomplicate this – just spoon a few leaves in a mug, fill with hot water, and steep for 5 or 10 minutes. That’s all there is to it!