Summertime is the perfect occasion for iced tea, but while store-bought tea may be a staple in most homes, you can also grow a variety of plants perfect for making your own tea.
Six easy to grow varieties are traditional tea plant (Camellia sinensis), mint, lemon balm, lemon verbena, lemongrass and anise hyssop. The leaves from most of these plants can be used either fresh or dried, hot or cold, with or without a natural sweetener.
Camellia tends to be a slow grower, but given full sun to part shade, acidic soil, a good balance of nutrients and lots of water, it will usually grow into a productive bush. According to the American Camellia Society,1 Camellia can be cultivated in most moderate zones in the U.S., but will fare best in Zones 7, 8 and 9.
White tea, green tea and black tea all originate from Camellia. The differences between them have to do with when the leaves are picked and the level of oxidation that occurs during the processing of the leaves.2
White tea is made from young buds; it’s the least processed and has the lowest caffeine and highest antioxidant content. Green and black teas are made from the larger, more mature leaves. Green tea processing involves steaming the leaves before drying them, while black tea requires a lengthier process involving fermenting and drying to maximize oxidation.
For home use, simply snipping off a batch of leaves and leaving them to dry will produce a tasty “white” tea. Alternatively, use them fresh. Simply grind them lightly between your fingers, or rip them before steeping to release a bit more flavor. For a bigger flavor boost, steam the leaves for three minutes first, then dry them before using.
There are over two dozen species of mint, including spearmint and peppermint. Modern Farmer3 suggests “experimenting with different flavored varieties, such as grapefruit mint and chocolate mint,” to find your favorite brew.
The telltale aroma and taste of mint comes from the menthol oil found in resinous dots on the leaves and stems of the plant. Peppermint tea is said to help relieve stress and promote sleep.4 Mint leaves are packed with antioxidants and easily grown in an enclosed garden, containers or even indoors, providing you with fresh, organically grown leaves whenever you need them.
For growing instructions, see “How to Grow Mint at Home.” To make tea, you have the option of using fresh or dried leaves. A simple iced mint tea recipe from The Spruce Eats5 calls for 2 cups of water and 15 fresh mint leaves.
Optional ingredients include honey for sweetness, and lemon slices and/or lemon juice for garnish and added flavor. Simply steep the leaves in boiled water for three to five minutes. Add sweetener if desired, then chill before serving.
Native to Europe, lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is now widely available and can be grown in home gardens, too. Lemon balm, which is part of the mint family, is said to have a flavor resembling green tea with lemon.6
Lemon balm tea has anti-inflammatory, immune-boosting, antibacterial and antiseptic properties that can make it useful for conditions such as arthritis, headaches, infections and the common cold. It also contains compounds with nerve-soothing effects, and can be helpful for alleviating stress, anxiety and depression.
A simple lemon balm tea recipe from Organic Facts7 calls for adding 2 teaspoons of fresh lemon balm leaves to 2 cups boiling water. Infuse for up to 10 minutes, then chill for a refreshing summer beverage.
You can also use dried lemon balm leaves, although the drying process may cause the leaves to lose some of their flavor. When drying lemon balm leaves, you’ll want to avoid light and heat.
Mother Earth Living8 suggests cutting around two-thirds of the way down the plant’s stem, then hanging the bunched cuttings upside down in a dark, dry place with good air circulation. The leaves will dry and turn black in about two days.9 To make the collection effort easier, you can tie a paper bag around the bunched cuttings.
Make sure the bag has holes punched on the sides as poor air circulation could cause mold growth. Use a rubber band to close the top of the bag and hang it in an area where there’s enough air circulation. Once the leaves are dry, they’ll fall to the bottom of the bag.
Another lemony favorite is lemon verbena. If you’re in Zones 9 and 10, it’s grown as a perennial shrub, but you can still cultivate it as an annual in more northern climates. To get the most leaves from your plant, give it regular prunings, as this will make it bushier and prevent it from getting too leggy.10
Its flavor is similar to lemon balm, but sweeter. According to the Mexican Food Journal, Mexicans drink lemon verbena tea “as a sleep aid and to help reduce indigestion.”11 To prepare it, all you need is three to six leaves to 4 cups of water.
A stronger tea is typically recommended if you’re serving it iced. While most teas call for adding the leaves after the water has boiled and you’ve removed it from heat, the Mexican Food Journal suggests placing the leaves in the water from the start, and allowing them to boil for about 15 minutes. Honey, agave nectar or stevia can be added for extra sweetness.
Lemongrass is easy to grow, requiring minimal attention, and can be used fresh in either hot or cold water for a refreshing summer beverage with anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety and pain-blocking12 benefits.13 Many will simply take a long blade of rinsed lemongrass and place it whole into a large glass beverage dispenser filled with cold water. Cucumber or lemon slices can also be added.
To make tea, cut the stalk as close to the ground as possible (the lower white part of the stalk is the sweetest). Rinse to remove debris, then cut the stalk into 2-inch pieces.
Bring water to a boil. Remove from heat and add the lemongrass stalks. Allow to steep for at least five minutes. Drain out the stalks before drinking. As with all other teas, it can be consumed hot or cold. Sweetener is typically not needed.
As its name implies, anise hyssop has a sweet licorice flavor. It’s part of the mint family, and is also known as licorice mint.14 If licorice isn’t high on your list of favorite flavors, you can still add it in small amounts to other teas. Modern Farmer15 suggests blending it with mint or one of the lemon-flavored herbal teas described above.
Anise hyssop has a long tradition of use among Native Americans, who claim it can “relieve a dispirited heart.” Mixed with elk mint, it’s also been used as a traditional remedy for chest pain associated with coughing and the common cold.”16,17 It also has sedative properties.18
For a full-strength anise hyssop tea, Taste magazine suggests adding five to eight fresh stems with leaves and/or flowers to 8 cups of boiling water, using a French press:19
“Gently rinse the plant parts with cool water to remove dirt and debris. Fill a large French press halfway with the anise hyssop (leaves, stems, and flowers). Add the boiling water and let steep for 15 to 20 minutes. Carefully press down the plunger. Pour the tea over ice into a pitcher or glass. Garnish with anise hyssop leaves and flowers to serve.”