Mention the word tea, and most thoughts turn to a strong hot cup of Earl Gray or a tall glass of sweet iced pekoe. But these days tea is more than black—it is green, or herbal, or something akin to hot chocolate. Regardless of how you have thought of it in the past, one thing is certain: tea is medicinal. And now, with the spring season swinging into early summer, many of the kitchen herbs in my garden are rapidly reaching their flowering stage. Of course, leafy herbs are at their peak of perfection just as the flowers begin to open, but I like to allow a few stems to bloom, as well. The flowers of most herbs are not only flavorful when used fresh or dried, but they also can have medicinal properties themselves and are excellent additions to many herbal tea blends.
Oftentimes, the words tea and infusion are used interchangeably to describe a simple liquid extraction. Yet, while the principle is the same, the methods of preparation are different. For one thing, tea is prepared using only water as the liquid solvent, and infusions can be prepared using water or oil. Another difference is that tea is generally steeped for ten to fifteen minutes before being consumed; water infusions are generally allowed to steep for at least a half hour or more, and oil infusions can be allowed to steep for as much as three days before being used.
Generally only leafy herbs and flowers are made into tea because these plant parts easily release their medicinal constituents when immersed in very hot water. There is no rule that says you can’t steep hard, woody material along with leafy herbs to make tea; however, the end result will not be nearly as flavorful or medicinal as it could be if the woodier material were decocted separately and then the decoction added to the tea.
Before using herbs for medicinal purposes, double-check what each herb is or is not capable of. This information is also helpful when herbs are being blended together to increase a specific medicinal action. The herbs should complement one another by having similar, not opposing, actions. When combining herbs for tea, the total quantity of herb used per cup (237 ml) does not change. If you are unsure whether different herbs will work together, it is probably best to stick with single-herb teas until you can do your homework.
To make a standard cup of tea, place 1 tsp. (gram weight will vary with each herb) of dried leafy herb or flowers in a teapot, mug or tisane cup. Bring 1 cup (237 ml) of water to a boil and pour it over the herb. Do not boil the herb in the water, as this can destroy many of the herb’s medicinal constituents. Place a cover over the top of the cup or pot and allow the tea to steep for ten to fifteen minutes. It is important to cover tea while it is steeping to prevent evaporation of volatile oils. It also keeps the tea nice and hot. If a tea that has steeped becomes too cool, it can be very slightly reheated without much harm.
Iced herb tea is a refreshing and healthful drink prepared using the same measurements as hot tea but generally on a larger scale to fill a pitcher that can be kept in the refrigerator. Besides being refreshing on a hot day, iced herbal teas can be used with a compress to ease the pain of burns, sunburns, and cold sores, or to ease itchy rashes, bites, and stings. Measure the amount of water needed to fill a pitcher and pour half of it into a pot and the other half into a pitcher. Place the pitcher of water in the refrigerator and bring the water in the pot to a boil. Remove the pot from the heat, add the appropriate amount of herbs, and allow them to steep for ten to fifteen minutes or until cool. Strain the tea into the pitcher of cold water and mix well.
To sweeten any tea, it is a good idea to use natural sweeteners such as honey or stevia when possible. Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) is a leafy herb from Paraguay whose leaves are ten times sweeter than sugar. Diabetics and those who are watching their calories can safely use these leaves as a sweetener because they have no calories and do not create a glycemic reaction in the body. Stevia leaves can be purchased as whole, crushed, or powdered herb or in a liquid form. Although stevia can be grown in the home garden, it is difficult to propagate from seed; it is best to purchase healthy plants from a nursery or garden catalog. Stevia is a great alternative to sugar, but use it sparingly at first because its aftertaste can be disagreeable in large amounts.
While tea can be very healthful, it is generally the slowest and gentlest form of herbal medicines. There shouldn’t be a whole lot of concern about overdosing on herbal tea, as long as a few standard precautions are taken. First of all, always begin by preparing the tea using the suggested quantities of herb per cup (237 ml) of water before adjusting the amounts. Secondly, understand that 3 to 4 cups (711 to 948 ml) of herbal tea a day is the standard recommended dosage. That doesn’t mean you must take 3 cups a day or that having 5 cups will be terribly harmful in most situations, but do try to stick to the recommendations when possible. Also keep in mind that some herbs are considered to be adaptogenic, that is, they improve function of bodily systems when used on a daily, long-term basis. These are the types of herbs that are excellent candidates for your daily tea.
And while your mind is wrapped around gathering herbs and making tea, don’t forget that many ornamental flowers such as violets, Johnny-jump-ups and roses are all edible. If you like to walk on the wild side, now is also a good time to gather wild rose petals, stinging nettle and raspberry leaves. Enjoy!
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