By the summer months of July and August, all planting in my garden is done. What is growing in my dry, hot soil is what will survive or not until cooler early autumn. To keep my crops producing flowers and vegetables, I wander during early morning or late afternoon among garden beds armed with a hoe and a dripping hose.
In the heat of the day, I take part in an accepted Southern activity. I guzzle tea. Sitting in a shady spot sipping that sweetened beverage rehydrates and relaxes me as I read. Recently, Growing Your Own Tea Garden (Fox Chapel Publishing, 2019) by Jodi Helmer introduced me to the art of using familiar plants as ingredients to create my own daily tea blends.
After an introduction recounting the history of tea, Helmer explains how making caffeinated teas, such as black, green, or oolong, require a Camellia sinensis bush. This plant must be at least three years old before harvesting the buds or leaves from its young stems. Then the type of tea made depends on the maturity of the leaves and on whether steamed or oxidized before drying. As Helmer describes the processes, a drying screen and a kitchen oven are the main equipment necessary.
Perhaps, because of this tea plant’s climate requirements, its past presence in America has been limited. Since 80 percent of Americans currently drink tea, the last two decades have seen its growth spread to farms in fifteen states. The closest and the oldest U.S. producer is the Charleston Tea Plantation in South Carolina.
Although I love caffeinated tea, creating an easier herbal tea from vegetation growing in my back yard appeals to me. Fortunately, Helmer presents 58 leaves, flowers, fruits, and roots that can be used to create an ingestible beverage. Rosemary, sages, thyme, mints, bee balm, yarrow, basil, roses, hibiscus, strawberries, persimmons, and ginger are some of the familiar plants that furnish parts to brew.
Each plant recommended for tea is accompanied by necessary information. The amounts of water, the quantities of the ingredients, and the length of time to steep for a tasty cup are clearly explained. In addition, Helmer relates how to grow the plant, its supposed health benefits, and warns if other parts of the plant are unhealthy to ingest. For those with limited space, Helmer suggests garden designs containing combinations of plants for specific needs, such as “hangover cure” or “tummy troubles” tea gardens.
The book’s final pages contain 14 herbal blend recipes that encouraged me to rush into my garden to snip ingredients for a taste of fresh herbal tea. After brewing rosemary leaves as Helmer recommended, I enjoyed a subtly flavored hot tea. Apple mint leaves soaked overnight resulted in an iced tea as flavorful as any made from a commercial tea bag.
Use this book to guide you through creating beverages from your garden. Work your way through the recommended plants to enjoy the free flavors of fresh summer teas.
Christine Thomson is a Raleigh gardener obsessed with plants. She is a volunteer at the JC Raulston Arboretum and fills her spare time reading books, especially volumes about vegetation.