By Mary Lou Leary, Extension Master Gardener
Do you savor the flavorful taste and smell of freshly brewed homegrown herbal tea? For their intern project, Valerie LaTortue and Mary Lou Leary (MGNV Class of 2018) developed a 90-minute presentation on growing, harvesting, brewing, and enjoying herbal teas. Extension Master Gardeners Kathryn Kellam and Susan Wilhelm served as mentors and co-leaders of the project over a four-month period. Read more to find out about the development of their presentation and to download recipes and handouts on herbal teas.
The presentation addressed what herbs are and why we should grow them, the difference between teas and tisanes, tips and best management practices for successfully growing herbs, advice on how to harvest, use, and preserve herbs, and pointers on creating flavorful tea blends and brewing them for peak flavor. Presented were 14 herbs grown for tea, their common and Latin names, height, width, USDA Plant Hardiness Zones, sun and soil requirements. Additional attributes included properties that attract pollinators, tips for harvesting, flavor notes, and facts that are “good to know,” for example, an ancient belief in the healing properties of herbs led to using Stachys officinalis (wood betony) to ward off ghosts and goblins in English graveyards.
Initially, Valerie, Mary Lou, Kathryn, and Susan researched 23 herbs, checking and cross-checking reliable scientific sources. They separated the herbs for research, independently verified each other’s results, grew and harvested a number of the plants. The group chose 15 herbs, such as Zingiber officinale (ginger), Thymus x citriodorus ‘Variegatus’, and Camellia sinensis, the true tea plant, to feature in the final presentation. One of the liveliest sessions was a tasting party where they brewed and tasted teas, using Kathryn’s antique porcelain cups. This tea party produced nuanced flavor profiles for each of the teas.
The group shared their personal experiences cultivating herbs for teas, and practical tips for purchasing, transplanting, and growing healthy plants. A combination of practical experience and research led to agreement on the principles that guide harvesting, freezing, or drying fresh herbs, and the best methods of brewing herbal tea to suit individual tastes.
In April 2019 the group presented the class at the Barrett Library in Alexandria, Virginia and at the Shirlington Library in Arlington, supplementing a PowerPoint presentation with a display of brewing implements like tea strainers, plants grown by the presenters, and jars of dried herbs for sniffing. Valerie emphasized enjoying the creative aspects of growing herbs and developing recipes that combine them in new ways to suit individual tastes. Attendees received a number of articles, a list of tea recipes, and a spreadsheet summarizing the key points of the presentation. Other Master Gardeners are invited to use these materials at public education events.
Susan and Kathryn are “old hands” at public education, and Valerie and Mary Lou discovered how much they enjoyed the experience. Mary Lou and Valerie modified the presentation for the Glencarlyn Library Community Garden’s AutumnFest on September 15, 2019. The highlight was samples of herbal iced teas like thyme rose hips, mint strawberry, lemon basil, and blackberry mint. They hope to introduce more members of the public to “grow, harvest, dry, and brew it yourself” herbal teas in the future.
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Sample Herbal Tea Recipes (courtesy of EMG intern Valerie LaTortue)