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Favorite Tea Herbs to Grow

The list of herbs one can use for tea is long, with their uses crossing over from pure culinary pleasure to folk remedy and healing. Here are some all-time beverage favorites, from South African natives to North American natives and many others you might want to try.

Starting with the mints (Mentha spp.), a fun, sometimes hard-to-find variety is banana mint. While the common name for some plants uses the word "banana" to describe color or shape, banana mint really has the aroma of bananas. Chocolate mint is another favorite. Children marvel over and over at how sniffing a plant growing in their own gardens smells like a chocolate peppermint patty. The citrus-scented mints: lime mint, orange mint and lemon mint, make especially delicious iced teas. Peppermint, spearmint, and licorice mint, of course, are better-known candy flavors for both hot and cold beverages. Mints are usually grown in pots or some sort of contained area because of their rampant ability to spread, and prefer lots of surface space versus depth to their growing area. They are hardy perennials and can usually take partial shade.

Another South African native that grows in Europe and the US is the scented geranium (Pelargonium spp.). It was introduced to Europe in the 1600s where its popularity spread. Although it resembles real geraniums, it is actual not a geranium at all, yet it is in the same botanical family. The leaves offer even more tea flavors to choose from than the mints, including apricot, strawberry, apple, rose, lemon, almond, licorice, and coconut. Scented geraniums are tender perennials that can be grown in containers and moved indoors or covered in winter.

German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) and Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) have long been infused into tea, dating back thousands of years to the ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks. It is quite easy to grow, usually already well-known to potential customers, and offers a slight apple-like aroma. Although legend says that Peter Rabbit was given Roman chamomile, German chamomile is the most popular variety used for tea, and only the flowers, without the leaves or stems, are used for this purpose.

Two more lemony favorites include lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla), and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). Lemon verbena is a tender perennial said to have the best lemon flavor of the entire plant kingdom, reminiscent of lemon drops, making a great lemonade iced tea. Lemon balm, however, a native to the Mediterranean and cultivated there for close to 2000 years, also has its faithful followers who insist its fragrance is quite beautiful. It is hardier than verbena, and while its top will die back in cold winters, the roots return new growth. Its native habitat also stretches to western Asia, southwestern Siberia, and northern Africa, and it has naturalized in North America and other areas. Bees love its flowers.

Hibiscus (Abelmoschus moschatus) is a tender perennial with a delicious tart flavor and ruby red color. The Pharaohs of the ancient Nile Valley drank it, as did many cultures around the world, including those of China, Mexico, the Caribbean and Europe. Hibiscus grows profusely in Africa (as well as the Caribbean and Hawaii). In temperate climates it can be grown in pots to bring inside or covered in winter. The flowers are more often used for making tea, with leaves occasionally used, although leaves give it a more "green" flavor.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is another tender perennial. Its flavor as a tea is described as having hints of ginger and quite pungent. Both its leaves and flowers are used for tea. Long ago, people were well acquainted with rosemary which was associated with remembrance, fidelity and love. And it has many folk remedies attributed to it.

There are many, many more herbs to choose from: pineapple sage and bee balm to name just a few. And remember the organic strawberries, raspberries, dandelions and roses you may already have growing in your garden or as a farm crop. Strawberry and raspberry leaves make delicious and healthful beverages. The Native Americans on the island where this author lives have shown me how they use a sprig of native wild rose to make a tea they once used for respiratory ailments. Rosehip tea and dandelion root tea are considered a very healing beverage.

Be sure all herbs used for consumption are safe from sprays or other contaminants, and check your local authorities for regulations on growing and selling any food product.

Once you dive into the mystery, legend and history of herbal tea, it can be tempting to experiment with making tea from unknown or even well-loved garden plants. But some of our garden favorites, such as the leaf, roots and flower of rhubarb, and those fragrant sweet peas, are considered toxic or poisonous when consumed. Be alert to possible allergies, as well, and stick to the documented tea herbs, as herbal teas from every continent and every culture throughout humankind's history (and prehistory) will provide a treasury to choose from that will last, and enhance, a lifetime.

(c) 2006 Barbara Adams. Barbara Adams Author: Micro Eco-Farming: Prospering from Backyard to Small Acreage in Partnership with the Earth (New World Publishing)

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