Grow your own tea

Gardening editor Alice Whitehead shows how to create your own 'home brews' you can grow in the garden.

Grow your own tea

Long before we began dunking bags of cured Camellia sinensis and way before
PG Tips, herbal teas were the first early brew. These infusions or, more correctly, 'tisanes' (thought to come from the French ti for 'tea', and sans for 'without', i.e without caffeine) – made from the berries, leaves, flowers or seeds of plants – have been used for centuries as medicinal diuretics, stimulants, cleansers and gargles. Even parsley has been used as a tea 'shampoo' to treat headlice!
But at six pence a bag, a supermarket herbal can be twice the price of a regular 'builder's tea', and with some containing synthetic ingredients, they're often a poor cousin to the fresh infusion. So why not have a go at growing your own?

Bespoke infusions
Garden centres or specialist nurseries, such as www.jekkasherbfarm.com or www.urban-herbs.co.uk, will have full-grown plants now (or you could ask for cuttings from a green-fingered neighbour). Grown in convenient pots or raised beds on the patio (just a stone's throw from the kettle), or on a vegetable patch, you'll be able to harvest them repeatedly and absolutely fresh, retaining bags more flavour, aroma and nutrients than you'd find in any boxed variety.
Best harvested on a sunny morning when the plant's oils are most vibrant, choose young leaves or flower buds and pop them into ziplock bags to use fresh, or freeze. Alternatively, hang them up to dry in a cool room (or spread leaves and flowers out on a screen) for about one week until crisp, then pack into dry bottles with lids.
As with all homegrown edibles, growing from scratch allows you to enjoy something you can't buy in the shops. So, while a traditional detoxing fennel or relaxing chamomile might be your cup of tea – this is a great opportunity to try something completely different.
Borage tea, for example, made using furry borage leaves, has a faint hint of cucumber and is wonderful in iced teas, decorated with its cobalt blue flowers. It's fantastically unfussy about where it's sown, and readily self-seeds – and you can dry the leaves for a DIY cold and flu remedy.
Anise-hyssop is another lovely herb, with a liquorice flavour. The chopped, dried leaves or flowers (use about 1 teaspoon) are thought to aid digestion. Like many tea herbs, it also has beautiful flowers, which are a magnet for bees and butterflies.
Raspberry leaf is also a tea ingredient that's often overlooked. Dry leaves on a sunny windowsill or on a very low heat in the oven (checking regularly so they don't burn) and infuse in hot water for 10 minutes. Serve with honey or even milk, as the taste is similar to black tea (though sadly not raspberry flavoured!). If you prefer, you can also steep the leaves in cold water first to reduce the bitter tannins.
Even scented-leaf pelargoniums, such as 'Attar of Roses', can be used for tisanes, with a flavour reminiscent of Turkish delight!

Free for all
If you've no budget, try raiding the wild larder. Rose hips from the wild dog rose are high in vitamin C and can be harvested in autumn. Chop or crush and strain before drinking as the hips house unpalatable seeds and hairs, or go for dandelion leaves and petals. Washed and dunked for 15 minutes, these make a sweet tea, which is thought to be good for the urinary tract and liver. Nettle leaves (harvested with gloves!) make an iron- and calcium-rich tea, but be prepared for both nettle and dandelion tea to smell a little 'boggy', and consider blending them with other more fragrant herbs such as lemon balm to mask the smell.
Indeed, once you get confident with your tisane-making skills, you can really start to experiment with your own blends. And as French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac once suggested, 'great love affairs start with Champagne and end with tisane' – so who knows where your passion might take you!

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