Know Your Local-i-tea
With Wild or Cultivated Herbs, You Can Create Your Own Locally Grown Teas.
Written onNovember 27 , 2013
What’s the secret to staying warm and healthy although a long, cold Vermont winter? Many gardeners and herbalists would agree that teas made from our wild and garden herbs are the soothing secret to health and happiness, especially in winter.
For centuries people have enjoyed the art of tea and the ritual of tea drinking as a spiritual practice, as a morning ritual, as medicine, and as a complement to social occasions. Enjoying tea in any of these ways will always benefit the drinker holistically. What’s more, the ceremony of tea is a venerable tradition, a universal way of sharing a calm and mindful space so that those present can contemplate and enjoy the moment. In the process of preparing tea, the medicine of a peaceful mind is already at work, even before the medicinal herbs reach our body to support us.
We are so rich here in Vermont with wild herbs that are useful for making delicious and healthy herbal teas. There’s yellow St. John’s wort flowers in abandoned meadows, tall mullein with its furry leaves and tall, flowered spikes, yarrow’s tiny white or pink flowers, and many other wild herbs, all of which are easily located in the Green Mountain State. This abundance of wildness is an inspiration to Vermont herbalists and herbal tea drinkers.
We Vermonters also enjoy growing “garden herbs” that can be used for tea. Try starting an herb garden with a few of your favorites, perhaps little plugs of thyme, chamomile, or bee balm. Or maybe you already have an herb garden but haven’t started making your own tea yet. Whether you forage, garden, make your own teas, or buy herbal teas, you can develop a closer connection with these little green friends that teach us how to live and be happy just by how they smell.
Two excellent books I recommend for getting to know herbs are by Vermont authors: Rosemary Gladstar’s Family Herbal: A Guide to Living Life with Energy, Health, and Vitality and Herbs: Partners in Life by Adele Dawson, my grandmother. Herbalism is also built through people sharing their plant knowledge and experience with each other. In Vermont and beyond, there is a strong community of herbalists, their roots networked intricately together like the plants they study.
To grow and be around herbs such as chamomile, sage, thyme, lemon balm, comfrey, calendula, and peppermint (all ideal herbs for tea) is a blessed communion with nature. If you are new to herb growing, beware that herbs are hardy and vigorous and may spread farther than you intended. A small plug of this or that will go a long way to starting your tea garden. To contain spreading, plant herbs in a bottomless basket or bucket sunk into the ground. Your herbs will grow happily in a sunny location with ordinary soil and good drainage. Winter is the time to dream, research, and plan for the garden.
Foraging for Tea
Foraging for tea is an opportunity for connecting with the natural world. Not only is it fun, but it’s free, just as nature intended all medicine to be. I like to forage for chaga to make my morning tea. Chaga is a fungus that grows on birch trees. It looks like a rough, black chunk of charcoal growing from the side of a birch tree trunk. You can read more about this earthy medicinal mushroom in Chaga: King of the Medicinal Mushrooms by David Wolfe. The color pictures and descriptions will help you recognize it; just be sure you identify it correctly. I dry the mushroom on the woodstove, then grind it to a chunky powder with a mortar and pestle. Then I simmer this powder in water for at least 30 minutes to brew. I like to have my morning cup with fresh raw milk from my neighbor’s farm and raw unfiltered honey from my own beehives. It’s dark and tastes rich like coffee, but without the jittery caffeine effect.
The thin sarsaparilla-smelling bark of the black birch also makes a nice tea, alone or mixed with other herbs. It has a sort of root beer taste and is known to be an anti-inflammatory. Whenever I’m clearing saplings and I smell that black birch smell, I like to chew on a piece of bark while harvesting some for making tea later.
Rosehip, like chaga and black birch, is not an herb, but can easily be foraged. It can often be found wild, but public gardens are another good source, if you don’t take too much or can get permission. Rosehips, an excellent source of vitamin C, are bright orange and red; the seed bulb left after the rose is gone is soft when ripe. You can carefully chew off the outer skin, leaving the seeds in the middle. If it tastes good and the skin is soft enough to do this, you are on the right track. If in doubt, ask someone who can identify the plant; it is always a good idea to know what you are eating, although in this case I don’t know of any harmful look-alikes.
Dandelion root also makes a fine tea, and it’s good for the liver. I discovered dandelion when I was digging potatoes and found that there were more dandelions than potatoes. Their roots are very impressive. I make some into a tincture and the rest I slice and dry for tea. Dandelion tea also has an earthy coffee-like taste.
Last, ever notice raspberry tea on the shelves at the store, recommended for easing women’s cycles? Well, if there is a raspberry bush that you need to trim back, why not dry some of the leaves and make your own tea with those? I’ve done this and it works quite well. The tea is just as good as the store-bought kind and you can save money. Thanks to raspberries, I have a greater appreciation of what goes into a tea bag, too…. It takes a lot of time to pick each leaf off the prickly raspberry branch!
Harvesting and Preparing Herbs for Tea
If you pick your herbs fresh from where they are growing, you can make tea from the fresh leaves and flowers, or dry the herbs for later use. Harvest herbs earlier in the day just after the dew has evaporated for peak freshness. You can encourage the plant to bush out by not removing more than the second set of leaves. Avoid using any herbs for tea that may have residues of pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. If you choose herbs from the wild be sure you know what you’re picking. As a general rule, in Vermont it’s best to stop harvesting herbs by mid-August, giving perennials time to build up their reserves for winter.
To dry herbs for later use, simply cut some branches of the herb, tie the bouquet together with a string, and hang it up to dry. A warm, dark place with good ventilation is best. You can also air dry herbs on a screen. When the leaves are dry and crackly, it’s time to strip the leaves off the stems and crumble them into a jar for storage. Keep your tea closeted from sunlight and it should keep for up to a year. Label the jar with its contents and date so you’ll know what kind of tea you are offering your guests.
Don’t take water for granted; it’s the main ingredient in your tea. I say that because I hope there are as many advocates for clean, pure, safe drinking water as there are tea drinkers. The quality of the water in your tea is the quality of your tea. There is no need to bring the water all the way up to boiling to make tea, and some would say this kills some of the flavor of the tea and the water. Simply steep your fresh or dried herbs in steaming hot water for a few or many minutes. How many minutes depends on how strong you like your tea. If it’s a medicinal tea you may need to steep it longer to get the maximum effect. Brewing should be at least 3 minutes, and at most 30 minutes. You can try mixing up different herbs together for batches of mixed herb teas. For inspiration try some mixed teas made by local herbalists and farmers.
Where to Buy Vermont-Grown Tea
Currently, Zack Woods Herb Farm is the only Vermont herbal tea producer of any significant scale. Zack Woods herbal tea comes in two varieties, Mountain Tulsi Tea and Rejuvenation Tea; these are available at Hunger Mountain Co-op, Plainfield Co-op, and Brattleboro Co-op, as well as from Zack Woods’ website. The teas are grown and processed at the farm in Hyde Park, where you can also buy herbs growing in the pot to start your own tea garden. “We believe there should be an herb farm in every community,” says Melanie Carpenter, who with her husband Jeff, own Zack Woods.
All of their herbs are certified organically grown or ethically wild crafted. Zack Woods also hosts numerous educational tours and offers internships on the cultivation and preservation of medicinal plant populations. Learn more at zackwoodsherbs.com.
Gillian Kapteyn Comstock of Metta Earth Institute in Lincoln has created Metta Tea, an herbal blend made from organically grown and wild-crafted herbs from the institute’s gardens and meadows. This tea can be purchased at the Metta Earth Institute farm store (downstairs, backdoor). Metta Earth also hosts regular tea ceremonies that are open to the public, usually at “tea time”, from generally 4:00 pm to 5:00 pm. Tea times can be found online at mettaearth.org, on the calendar page.
Update December 6, 2013: Taylor Katz and her partner Misha Johnson recently founded, Free Verse Farm, which specializes in local tea. They grow a variety of tea herbs and have a handful of their own tea blends, such as "Lemon Laze" and the very popular "Earl of Vermont." They grow all of their herbs ecologically (they're not certified organic yet) and have had great success selling at the Norwich and Hanover farmers' markets. Their teas are also now available at the Cedar Circle farm stand, at Upper Valley Yoga, as well as online in their new webstore.