Our editor in chief makes the case for never settling for plain black tea again.

By Stephen Orr
February 24, 2020

Several summers ago, I started experimenting with throwing a few homegrown herbs into the teapot. It started small with a sprig or two of mint or lemon verbena, but over the years my tea herb obsession has expanded, and now I grow dozens of herb plants solely for their drinkable properties. Sometimes I make a purely herbal hot tisane (a fancy French word for a beverage made from herbs instead of actual tea leaves). But being Texan, my refrigerator always holds a pitcher of iced black tea. I spruce mine up with lemongrass and tulsi one day or anise hyssop, lavender, and rose geranium the next. You can't go wrong, really. The flavors live in such harmony that no matter the recipe, I've never made an undrinkable batch.

Carson Downing

My Perfect Cup

To make iced herbal tea, pour nearly boiling water over two bags of black (or green) tea and add a tablespoon or more of fresh or dried leaves like mint or lemon verbena, a lesser amount of tulsi, and a pinch of lavender (too much can taste like soap). After a few minutes, pour into a pitcher and fill with water. For a noncaffeinated version, hold the tea, add more herbs, and let it steep a little longer. To make a single cup of hot tea, use one tea bag and a few pinches of herbs.

Carson Downing

Favorite Herbs for Tea

Anise Hyssop - Hints of licorice and root beer.

Lavender - English of French types have the finest flavors.

Lemongrass - The pale base of the blades packs the strongest flavor.

Lemon Balm - Bright lemon tang when fresh.

Lemon Basil - Citrus with the spiciness of basil. Doesn't dry well.

Lemon Thyme - Surprisingly strong citrus notes with a spicy thyme taste.

Lemon Verbena - The most refined lemon flavor in the herb clan.

Mint - Many tasty types, including spearmint, peppermint, 'Mojito,' 'Kentucky Colonel,' and pineapple.

Pineapple Sage - A subtle pineapple scent in a tall salvia.

Scented Geranium - Fragrant rose hybrids are favorites.

Tulsi - Aka holy basil. Revered in India as a medicinal and ceremonial plant.

Carson Downing

Growing Tips for Tea Herbs

Start annuals like lemon basil and tulsi from seeds or seedlings purchased from a garden center and provide lots of sun and water. Cut down for drying before first frost. Perennials such as thyme, pineapple sage, and anise hyssop will return each year in Zones where they are hardy if given sun and soil with good drainage. (Mint can be invasive, so position it carefully or grow it in a pot.)

Related: How to Grow Your Own Herbal Tea

Tender perennials such as lemongrass, lemon verbena, and scented geraniums will grow year-round in warm climates. Elsewhere, overwinter them indoors as houseplants or grow as one-season annuals. I don't fertilize my herbs because it can result in too much soft growth and a decrease of oils in the leaves. No oils; no flavor.

Drying and Sorting Herbs

You can dry herbs on drying racks or by hanging them in bundles. But I use an even simpler method: I lay the branches out in a single layer on dish towels covering a table for about a week. Once completely dry, hand-strip each variety's leaves into a glass jar. Break up the stems, too, because they also hold flavor and scent. Stored in a dry, dark place, dried herbs can last for a year or more, although they do lose flavor over time.

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