by Arielle Illia
A Warm Welcome to Herbal Teas
Nothing is more soothing than a freshly steeped cup of herbal tea. It's aromatic and stimulating, yet soothing at the very same instant. When I first tried mint tea, not all that long ago, I was instantly drawn to the warm fragrance and after drinking just one cup I was amazed at how readily I went to sleep that night.
After discovering herbal teas and just how simple it is to make your own, I have been on a herbal journey trek. I started with identifying flowers and growing them for this specific purpose, then learned about utilizing weeds for teas and then we branched out to foraging wild plants and mushrooms. So many plants and fungi around us have incredible properties that we can tap into with a warm cup of tea.
In our culture plant's potential medicinal and therapeutic effects are often overlooked and although we are new to the game and still have so much to learn, we have been thrilled with our experience so far. Even if they aren't helping us with a specific ailment I most surely feel herbal teas help our mental and spiritual well being.
The process of making your own herbal teas starts with the resource. You can purchase dried tea online or easily incorporate an area to grow plants for tea in your garden. My favorite option if you are up for it, is to forage for wild plants or mushrooms and collect what parts will be utilized for tea.
Time and knowledge are two components of the process as well. I recommend garden catalogs if you are unsure which herbs and flowers to grow for teas and other medicinal use. Joining a foraging club or calling your local cooperative extension service may also be helpful if you would like to learn what wild edible plants grow in your area. And of course, the internet and books are great resources in addition.
Once you have collected the parts of the plants you will be using, they need to first dry for long term preservation. We achieve this by air drying, although using a dehydrator is also an option. This is the part that requires a considerable amount of time but very little energy on your part. The harvesting itself tends to be the most time consuming.
In the summer we dry flowers and herbs inside and outside, being sure they are kept out of direct sunlight. We accomplish this with twine or laying the flowers and leaves flat on a screen. We also set up a drying station near our wood stove for Chaga and Birch Polypore that we harvest in the fall and winter months.
Once dry herbs store well in mason jars and if kept out of direct sunlight they will last for years, however over time their potency will degrade.
Now for the best part, making your first brew of tea! Our favorite way to steep loose leaf tea is with a french press, like this one here.
These are a few of the herbs we have stocked on our shelves (not listed in any particular order):
Bee Balm - a stunning perennial, although not in our zone, and a pollinator favorite, we saved dried leaves and flowers for this earthy toned tea. Has antimicrobial properties and can soothe stomach ailments.
Lemon Verbena - The most fragrant lemon scent, imagine lemon perfume paired with lemon drop candy, these plants also possess the most delicate pink and white flowers. Leaves and flowers can help sooth an upset stomach, treat muscle spasms, and even act a sedative.
Clary Sage - This perennial typically flowers on the second year of growth. We were only able to harvest the fuzzy leaves this garden season, which are mostly known for their calming effect on the mind and body and have a wonderful earthy aroma.
Mint - A must for us, leaves from this herb are wonderful to help awaken you in the morning and surprisingly before bed as well to promote relaxation. Also known to treat digestion issues. There are many fun varieties of mint to grow for culinary or medicinal purposes but we stick with the hardiest here, Spearmint and Peppermint, which can perennialize in our climate.
Borage - A vigorous growing plant that bees adore, the eccentric blue star shaped flowers and the spikey leaves can be used in teas to deliver the essential fatty acid, linolenic acid. A great tea for women with its high levels of calcium and iron as well as individuals suffering from adrenal insufficiency. When Borage is freshly picked it has a cucumber melon scent but we find that is lost once steeped.
Nasturtium - Flowers and leaves have high levels of vitamin C and are great for colds, sore throats, and sinus infections. It is not peppery like the seed but rather has a floral taste which is quite lovely. We recently discovered our chickens enjoy this plant as much as we do, so needless to say we will be planting even more in this year's garden.
Chamomile - This flower is rich with apigenin, an antioxidant, and most well know for its therapeutic and calming effect. It smells deliciously sweet and is not only a superb tea to promote sleepiness but other properties of this flower include reducing inflammation and menstrual pain.
Marigold - This year we grew a French variety (not to be confused with Calendula) and found the flower petals to have an extremely potent sedative effect on us. A culinary herb as well, we noted that once cooked they did not seem to have the same effect. Marigolds are also antibacterial and antiseptic.
Lemon Balm - A prolific plant that shares similar properties to mint, the leaves release a stimulating lemon scent when rubbed between your fingertips. A favorite herb of ours to help brighten the day, it can stimulate your mind, calm your nerves, and is considered a digestive aid.
Fireweed - Alaska's iconic flower, both the leaves and petals can be harvested, this tea has a pleasing floral quality and is useful for fever reduction and wounds. It is also a men's health herb for those suffering from prostate enlargement.
Yarrow - We harvested the flowers and leaves that grow wild here but common yarrow can easily be grown in a garden setting too. It sounds strange but it has a linen scent, similar to a fresh laundry room but tastes rather mildly bitter. A strong hemostat, this herb improves circulation, and has antiseptic and anesthetic properties that make it ideal for treating wounds.
Labrador - Has many names, commonly sold as Hudson Bay Tea, this plant has a fuzzy rust colored underside on its leaves and a citrus aroma. It should only be steeped for short periods and consumed in moderation due to ledol presence in the leaves. Labrador has a wide array of benefits for the chest and lungs from soothing a sore throat, to treating a lung infection.
Chaga - A parasitic fungus found on Birch trees, this cinnamon aroma mushroom pairs great with coffee among its other renowned benefits. In addition to the array of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants it posses, there are claims this magical fungi can cure cancer, reduce cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and decrease sugar levels all while improving your immune system. We steep large chunks for several hours on the wood stove, as a powder it does not need to be steeped as long.
Birch Polypore - Antiseptic, antiparastic, antifungal, antibacterial, antitumor, anticancer, antinflammatory, antiviral, and immune boosting. Okay, you get it right? This mushroom, commonly found on Birch trees, does it all but unfortunately the tea is quite bitter; it is best to steep for short periods or make a tincture.
Not all the properties of these herbs were listed, and many of them overlap with what they can treat. They all provide the body with tremendous nutrients and most are considered tonics. If you are like me and asked what exactly is a tonic, here is the answer according to Wikipedia. "A herbal tonic is used to help restore, tone and invigorate systems in the body or to promote general health and well-being." Now who doesn't like the sound of that?
Precautions to note before trying herbal teas:
* Not all plants have medicinal and culinary uses, it is best to research the plant prior to harvesting to confirm and clarify what it can be used for. Knowing poisonous look alikes is a crucial step not to be overlooked.
* When steeping herbal teas, remember a little goes a long way. Many plant leaves will release tannins when they are steeped for long periods and like all good things in nature there is a balance. Tannins are considered harmful in large concentrations, so in this case more is not always better.
* Herbal teas can help many folks suffering however they are not an appropriate solution for everyone. Some can be contraindicated with prescription medications or medical conditions, it is strongly advisable to play it safe and consult with your physician if indicated.
* Always try your first exposure to a new plant with a small amount to see how your body reacts. Although natural, they can have a powerful effect, including drowsiness.
For us, the herbal teas have indeed helped in times of minor need but for the most part we truly enjoy their herbal fragrance as a wonderful source of peace.
I hope this may spike your curiosity to investigate what a cup of herbal tea could do for you, whether it be a walk in your own garden or a hike in the forest. Believe it or not, even that obnoxious yellow weed we call dandelion has incredible benefits to offer.