Making your own herbal tea is as simple as walking to your nearest rosemary bush, snipping a 2cm sprig, standing it in your tea cup, pouring boiling water over and removing after 2 minutes.
“There are many simple teas made from just one, fresh herb,” Helen Loe says. “For instance, three leaves of lemon verbena or one 3cm sprig of lemon balm or three heads of camomile will all make nice teas and honey can be added if a sweetener is needed.”
Helen, who lives near Tauranga, has been drinking herbal teas since she was 16, inspired after buying a book by Jethro Kloss, an American who promoted herbal remedies. “I couldn’t believe you could achieve so much healing and wellbeing through herbs,” Helen says. “It opened my eyes to a whole new world.”
Coming from a family of gardeners and vege growers, it seemed natural for Helen to head to Lincoln University and study for a diploma in horticulture management – after graduating she headed overseas and on her return in 1990 for about 7 years grew flowers commercially and herbs for restaurants, all the while making her own herbal teas on the side.
“But I came to realise that growing flowers wasn’t compatible with what I wanted,” she says. “I also withdrew from supplying restaurants and began growing herbs fulltime for teas.
“It was all study, trial and error and tasting. It’s important to me that herbal teas taste nice, whether using dried or fresh plants. Then I thought I’d better get some training so went and studied for a diploma in herbal medicine under the amazing Isla Bennett.”
Helen blends her teas under the Herbal Health Clinic label and usually supplies them only to humans but for about a decade had an elderly client in Matamata who wanted a particular herbal tea to feed his racing pigeons.
The medicinal properties of herbs are more potent when the plant is in flower, so although flowering herbs can be used in teas, steeping times should be shorter, otherwise the drink will be bitter. Helen uses only Lavandula angustifolia ‘Pacific Blue’ for teas, preferring its milder flavour.
Camomile tea tends to divide people but Helen reckons that’s down to not knowing how to make it. “It’s a wonderful, relaxing tea that is especially good in the evenings – but infuse it for only 2 minutes. There’s a misconception that to ‘have it stronger, infuse it longer’, but all that happens is it gets bitter and people get turned off. If you want it stronger, use more tea.”
The camomile used for tea is Matricaria recutita, an annual – and Helen emphasises it’s vital to correctly identify plants intended for consumption. “Calendula flowers are quite different to the French marigolds, or Tagetes, that most people have in their gardens so knowing your plants is imperative – joining a herb society is by far the best way to learn.”
She grows her culinary herbs in pots near the kitchen door. “If you don’t grow them near the kitchen you tend not to use them and container growing is just as good, with some herbs, like mint and nettles, needing to be constricted.
“There are some that also do well by a tap – mint, horse radish and valerian all like being grown by water so a bit of spray or a few drops from an outside tap is perfect.”
Among her more unusual plants (not all used for tea) are Vitex agnus-castus (chasteberry tree), Viburnum opulus (cramp bark), Salvia apiana (white sage), Filipendula ulmaria (meadowsweet) and Echinacea. She’s on the lookout for a lemon myrtle (Backhousia citriodora) tree and also wants a witch-hazel.
As well as recently installing a still to extract essential oils to make hydrosols, or floral waters, from plants such as lavender, rosemary and lemon verbena, Helen is also remaking her large garden this winter. Beds are being retired and new ones laid for planting with cuttings taken in late summer.
Simple Winter Tea (makes 2 cups)
Helps the blood flow and boosts the immune system.
Fresh herbs: 1 sprig of rosemary, 2 sprigs lemon verbena, 3 sprigs thyme, 1-2 kawakawa leaves. Dried herbs: 1 tablespoon each of lemon verbena, thyme and kawakawa, 1 teaspoon rosemary. Infuse for 3-5 minutes before drinking.
To dry herbs Helen advises picking only after they’ve had three fine days on them and to pick in the morning once any dew has dried. “I’m really fussy about harvesting herbs,” she says, “because it makes such a difference to how they dry and store. Pick only the best leaves, and flowers just as they’ve opened. If you have the best plant material you’ll have the best end product – the only exception is kawakawa because it’s been proven the eaten leaves have better medicinal properties.”
Helen checks her picked crop carefully for insects before laying herbs and flowers on cardboard (opened-out boxes) on the floor of her “herb room”. You’re aiming to have herbs dry green, not black, so keep an eye on conditions and check for bugs through the drying process.” Tying large bundles of the same herb together and hanging them upside down is a common practice but Helen believes she gets a better result with each stem or flower-head drying separately.
“You need dry heat, so don’t dry herbs near a kitchen, bathroom or laundry, and keep them out of direct sun. If there’s a nice breeze I open a window at either end of my room to get a one-way airflow.” Touching is the best way of determining when drying has finished – if the herb feels crisp it’s done.
The dried herbs are stored in paper bags, shoe boxes or tins (never glass), with the container named and dated. Most dried herbs will retain their taste for up to a year if kept out of direct light and where temperatures are constant. She keeps precious crops, such as dried rose petals, calendula flowers or liquorice root, in air-tight containers in the freezer.
“If you haven’t used dried herbs within a year, compost them and start again,” she says.
Pick-me-up Tea (makes 2 cups)
Helps clear the chest and reduces postnasal drip.
Fresh herbs: 2 sprigs of peppermint, 3-4 sprigs lemon balm, 1 liquorice root teabag. Dried herbs: 1 tablespoon of everything. Infuse for 3-5 minutes before drinking. Make sure the bought tea contains liquorice root and isn’t just ‘liquorice flavoured’.
Note: 2 teaspoons of dried Echinacea may also be added.
To make “tea leaves” Helen coarse chops the dried plants so they’re a similar size to the smallest leaf in the mix. “Understanding how much of each herb should be used is complex,” she says. “For instance, too much St John’s wort will dry up your mouth, or if you use nettle as a base it’s good to add three lemon herbs to complement it and then finish with a few rose petals or red clover flower.
“Five to seven herbs is plenty for any tea.”
For those who can’t access fresh herbs or dry herbs, Helen is happy to recommend commercial herbal teas. “Ten years ago herbs in packaged tea would be 3 to 4 years old and taste like old gumboots but now in New Zealand we have great organic companies who grow good-quality plants using sustainable production methods.”
Good for coughs and sore throats.
Infuse 3-4 tops of fresh sage in 1 cup of boiling water for 4-5 minutes. Gargle warm or cold (it can be swallowed but will be bitter).
Ginger, Honey & Lemon with a twist (makes 1 cup)
2 sprigs peppermint, 1 teaspoon grated ginger, juice of ½-1 lemon, 2 teaspoons honey.
What is a tisane? Strictly speaking, all herbal teas are tisanes – that is fresh or dried herbs (or bark, roots, berries, seeds or spices) steeped in boiling water and used as a beverage, often for medicinal effect. Unlike tea, tisanes do not contain caffeine.
For more information contact Helen Loe, phone 07 543 0369.
This article was first published in NZ Gardener and appears here with permission.