Tea From Your Own Garden

Herbal TeaGrowing traditional and herbal teas at home is explained in a new book.

We’ve grown herbs in our garden and surrounding landscapes for more years than we remember. Most of them — basil, rosemary, thyme, sage, and the like — were raised for our modest culinary uses. That said, we’ve always grown utility herbs, like mint, that we used in cooking (mint jelly), flavoring (a sprig in iced tea or planted atop some whipped-cream crowned dessert) or for tea (we don’t need to spell this one out). We’ve also used various, usually flowering herbs as ornamentals in flower beds. Some herbs (PDF) are great used in water-conscious, xeriscape gardens.

Lately, we’ve become obsessed with herbal teas. We were always big fans of mint, rosehips, licorice, chamomile and other teas, but aside from the mint (and rosehips that we used to gather on a windy bluff above the Strait of Juan de Fuca) we mostly purchased them at our neighborhood natural food stores or herbal shops. You may have read our recent post on our experiment growing seeds teas — fennel and fenugreek — that we’re hoping will produce results before the snow flies.

Now just in time to address our curiosity for growing herbs and other plants for making delicious, refreshing, and medicinal teas comes Cassie Liversidge’s new book Homegrown Tea: An Illustrated Guide to Planting, Harvesting, and Blending Teas and Tisanes (St. Martin’s Griffin). A good but not necessarily best thing about the book? It’s currently available for free download from the publisher (more about that later).

Let’s get one thing out of the way first. We didn’t know the term “tisane” and we were curious to see it in the title. A tisane, as Liversidge explains it is “infusions of plants other than the tea plant.” We’ve always thought of the teas made for medicinal purposes — those steeped for long periods or involving roots that were boiled briefly to bring out their beneficial properties — as infusions. But Liversidge wants to make a distinction. She enjoys the rituals involved with tea. “For me,” she writes, ” the word tisane does not conjure up the same sense of occasion and reverence as the word tea does, but I enjoy drinking tisanes as much.”

I get it. When I make an infusion of licorice and ginger root (both briefly boiled) and then steep them with fennel and fenugreek seed and some mint, I’m making a tisane. It’s strongly flavored but it’s tremendously soothing. I may not be able to tell if it cleanses my liver, as my herbalist claims, but it sure does make my tummy feel good.

Liversidge opens with a brief section on brewing tea. I didn’t know, for example, that certain teapots, depending on how and what they’re made of, are believed to be suited to the flavors of certain teas. Measurement — balancing water and tea leaves — is crucial.

But the largest and most informative section of the book is devoted to growing your own teas. She definitely comes down on the side of organic growing. “The most wonderful thing about growing you own plants is that you can guarantee that no chemcials have been used on them,” she begins the book’s final section, “Further Plant Advice,” then discusses everything from soil and propagation to repotting and pest control.

The section on individual plants is broken into chapters on what you’ll be seeking to harvest: Leaves, Seeds, Fruits, Flowers, Roots. The groupings are comprehensive and we found at least a few teas (“manuka” and “sweet tea vine” under “Leaves”) that we didn’t know anything about. In addition, she discusses herbs we might never have thought of growing, like saffron. Though not easy, it might be worth an experiment considering how costly it is.

Other plants we never considered growing are those that produce Chinese teas. These specialized members of the camellia family love high altitude and misty mornings and can take years to mature. They’re woody bushes after all. But, as she does with all teas — Liversidge covers black, green, and white as well — she gives specific growing instructions.

The tea plants we usually consider herbs fall in all the categories: bergamot, lemon balm and six different mints under “Leaves;” rose hip and lemon under “Fruits;” calendula, jasmine, and two kinds of chamomile under “Flowers;” chicory and (surprisingly) echinacea under “Roots;” and, yes, fennel and fenugreek under “Seeds.” Our only criticism is that she frequently doesn’t specify the best zones or growing conditions for some of the more exotic plants. On the other hand, she makes no bones telling you that a tropical climate is needed to grow jasmine.

At least for now, you can download the entire book by going to this You Tube page and clicking on the link that’s supplied under the screen. We’re not one to second-guess marketing strategies, but we’re guessing that the publishers assume you’ll watch the video and be sold on buying the hard copy of the book. It’s worth it. Printed on thick, glossy paper, the book (it’s heavy!) contains beautiful photographs and illustrations (one at the beginning of each tea plant’s pages, drawn by Liversidge herself).

The book makes fascinating reading, even if you don’t plan to grow jasmine, saffron, your own green tea, or some of the more exotic plants). But it’s invaluable for those of us who will grow our own lemongrass, raspberry leaf, or rose petals for a soothing, homegrown cup of tea.

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