With wild or cultivated Vermont herbs, you can create an array of locally-grown teas.
by Alice Eckles
This article is published in a slightly different version in Vermont's Local Banquet, winter 2013
What's the secret to staying warm and healthy through a long, cold Vermont winter? Many gardeners and herbalists would agree that teas made from our local 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 a medicine, and as a compliment to social occasions. Enjoying tea on any of these occasions 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 out 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. Johns-wort flowers, tall mullein with its its furry leaves and tall, flowered spikes, and 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 wild herbs 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 can 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. Becoming a bit of an herbalist will help you appreciate herbal teas and guide you in the art of making them.
Growing herbs:To grow and be around herbs such as chamomile, sage, thyme, lemon balm, comfrey, calendula, and peppermint (all ideal herbs for tea) is a way to connect with nature. If you are new to herb growing, beware that herbs are hardy and vigorous and may spread further than you intended. A small plug of this or that will go a long way to starting your tea garden. To contain spreading, you can 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 peaceful communion with the natural world. Not only is it fun, but its free, just as nature intended all medicine to be. You can also make tea from trees. For example, 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 thirty 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 we are clearing saplings and I smell that black birch smell, I like to chew on a piece of the 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, though in this case I dont know of any harmful look-alikes.
Dandelion root also makes a fine tea, and its 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 made make some into a tincture and the rest I sliced and dried for tea. Dandelion tea also has an earthy coffee-like taste.
Chaga, birch, and rosehips are just the beginning. Which herbs should you use? Use the ones you know. If you buy a commercial herbal tea, check the ingredients and see if you are already growing them!
Last, ever notice raspberry tea on the shelves at the store, recommended for easing womens 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? Iv'e 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: You can buy bulk herbs from a natural foods store or co-op, or you can grow and forage your own. 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 are youre picking. As a general rule, in Vermont, its 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 will you'll know what kind of tea you are offering your guests.
Brewing tea:Dont take water for granted; its 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? That depends on how strong you like your tea. If it is a medicinal tea you may need to steep it longer to get the maximum effect. Brewing should be at least three minutes, and at most thirty 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 Wood's website. The teas are grown and processed at Zack Woods Herb Farm, 278 Mead Road, in Hyde Park, Vermont, 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, co-owner of Zack Woods with her husband, Jeff. All of their herbs are certified organically grown or ethically wild-crafted. Zack Woods farm also hosts numerous educational tours and offers internships on the cultivation and preservation of medicinal plant populations. Learn more online at zackwoodsherbs.com.
Gillian Kapteyn Comstock of Metta Earth Institute, located at 334 Geary Road South, in Lincoln, Vermont, has created Metta Tea, an herbal blend made from organically grown and wild-crafted herbs from the Institutes 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 about 4 pm to 5 pm. Tea times can be found online at mettaearth.org, on the calendar page.
For people who like a black caffeinated breakfast tea, I'm not aware that it can be grown in Vermont, but it can be grown in Charleston, South Carolina. For black tea from America's only tea garden order, or find stores on-line at charlestonteaplantation.com
Adele Dawson, (1905-1992), was an artist more than an herbalist before coming to Vermont. Once here, she found the people involved in herbs irresistible. Author Rosemary Gladstar and Adele became friends, as ties of friendship seem to permeate this field. Adele passed away at the age of 85 though she often gets credit for having lived a longer life. She was healthy and strong in her later years but died suddenly of an asthma attack. For her part, Rosemary likes to say that “Herbalism honors its elders.” You can learn about herbs from Rosemary at Sage Mountain Retreat Center in Barre, Vermont. She also offers a home study in herbology, (see sagemountain.com for details). Dream of one day owning and running your own retreat center? On her website Rosemary asks that anyone interested in such a dream contact her. Rosemary will be 65 this year and hopes to do less and be more. Sounds like a very interesting opportunity for someone with the energy and financial resources to carry on this rewarding work.
Adele Dawson herbalist, artist, and author shares this herbal tea recipe in her book Herbs: Partners in Life: one part chamomile, one part costmary, two parts red clover, two parts stinging nettle, two parts thyme, a grating of fresh ginger and a whole nutmeg. I've found that this tasty tea really warms you up when you come in from the cold.