By Sophie Carlson
I live on a homestead in remote northern British Columbia, with many acres to roam. My favorite activity on a beautiful summer day is the collecting of plants. With a bucket full of an assortment of glass jars, I set off. Oh, how lovely it is to roam over the fields and to meander through the grasses! Without haste, I observe which wildflowers are ready to be harvested. I have learned which plants are edible, and – just as important – which taste good in a cup of herb tea.
So I gather wild plants to make my own herb tea. But not just any tea. I go beyond the more common ingredients like rosehips and mint; I also gather blackcurrants, juniper berries, and wildflowers such as red clover. Because spearmint doesn’t grow in the wild where I live, I add it from our organic garden.
In all, my herb tea mix consists of about twenty herbs. All these herbs I dry at home, and I mix them together for a flavorful brew. I believe this healthy and tasty tea supplies many vitamins and minerals, and perhaps even micronutrients that haven’t been discovered yet. My husband, who has taught me the names of most wild plants that I use, faithfully drinks a cup with me every morning. He calls it his medicine.
Everything here is natural and unsprayed. At leisure, I walk along. A sense of freedom fills me when I’m out here. I roll up my sleeves and enjoy the warm sunshine. The season starts with rose petals. I tend to pick jars and jars full, to make sure I have enough for the long winter. The petals dry to a bright and almost purple color when picked the day that the rose flowers open. They make the house smell deliciously fragrant.
By the middle of May, dandelions bloom, turning the fields yellow. Since dandelion is a cure-all, I gladly incorporate it into my herb tea mix. Mixed in with many other medicinal plants, its bitter taste becomes unnoticeable.
Yarrow has her little white flower heads high above other plants in the meadow. Its white blooms come off in a gentle pull. It’s a great plant for tea, and it grows wild in the fields all around us. Strolling along, I come upon plantain next. It grows on and around the grassy path to our greenhouse. Evidently, it doesn’t mind being stepped upon. It also pops up in the rich soil around the compost strip. Here, it is able to make huge leaves and a few large leaves will fill up a jar quickly.
Horsetail is an edible plant that grows along the edge of the creek. I don’t pick more than a handful, because this herb is not to be consumed in great quantities. It is, however, nutritious and reputed to strengthen fingernails. Because strong nails, for a gardener, are a must, I add horsetail to my herb tea mix – perhaps only a spoonful to a quart jar of mix. Horsetail comes apart in sprigs; one can pick great bunches of it in a short time and it’s a fun plant to explore with children.
One day I discover a new plant, growing beside a small stream. A look in my plant guide confirms this to be coltsfoot. Its leaves are soft to the touch, and have a peculiar shape. Because the leaves have a soft backing, almost like flannel, they dry in clumps. Therefore I cut them up fine before drying. There are always lots of mosquitoes out when I harvest coltsfoot. A bug jacket sure helps to keep me happy!
I wander over to the creek bend, where blackcurrant grows in the shade of alder trees. I prefer to pick the leaves of this wild shrub when they are young and fragrant (and before the bugs get to them). The leaf is easily recognized, and differs greatly by shape and smell from the wild raspberry bushes which grow in this corner as well. I like the scent of both plants. The fruits of the two plants take all season to mature.
In the dry, uncultivated part of the garden wild chamomile thrives. The plant is officially called “pineapple weed,” but it looks like chamomile and has a similar taste. It adds great nourishment to the tea.
Common weeds like shepherd’s purse, chickweed, and pigweed are all edible and nutritious. They grow wild in the garden. Why not use what Nature provides? Free wild greens for tea and salad!
Fireweed is a bright expression of the summer at its best. With its pink-purple blossoms, this local wildflower is quite attractive. It grows in various places on our homestead and its persistent roots even find their way into the greenhouse! From outside, it creeps under the cement walls, into the dirt floor – even though I carefully pull them out every year. First the lower blossoms come in bloom, and as the season continues, the blooms move up the stem. When the top flowers bloom, I know summer is nearly over.
September is rosehip month. It is then that the plump fruits are at their prime, while the leaves of the plant are losing color. If there is extra space in the freezer, I’ll freeze these fruits of the wild rose. I find that frozen rosehips make a richer brew than dried.
Some plants are not fit for consumption, such as larkspur, which can be poisonous if taken internally. I will only let my eyes enjoy this plant, which is characterized by a long stem with purple flowers. Lupine is another purple wildflower that is not to be consumed. Arnica, with its wonderfully scented yellow flower heads, is a third plant that grows all over but is unsafe for consumption.
In order to create a year’s supply of tea, I have to take the herb harvest as seriously as the garden harvest. Nature has a lot to offer; herbs grow freely and wild, there for the taking. One just has to be out there at the right time.
My husband built me a series of screens that fit on the woodstove. At a safe distance from the heat to prevent the tender plants from scorching, the herbs dry within a few days. I note the date when they are picked, so that I know when to turn them (usually the next day). All dried plant parts keep well in labeled jars in our dark and cool storeroom.
When all herbs are gathered, the day comes to mix spoonsful of each plant together into one big, glass quart jar. The resulting mix will be the base for my morning tea. Before I mix the dried juniper berries in, I grind them up in a coffee grinder. This will make them release their contents easier. Dried rosehips can also be ground.
Years ago, a local homesteader gave me wild herb tea to drink. It tasted surprisingly good. I watched him brew it: a sprig of this, a handful of that, and voilà. Over time, I learned that one needs not be thrifty in making tea. One generous tablespoon of dried herb per cup is what I find to be the minimum for a delicious infusion.
My favorite herb tea is two tablespoons of my basic mix, to which I add one tablespoon of frozen mashed rosehips, and one tablespoon dried spearmint. I cover this with boiling water and put a lid on the glass quart jar so that valuable nutrients won’t steam away. I let it steep and cool for fifteen minutes. Then I hold a sieve over my cup to pour the tea through. With the back of a spoon, I press on the sieve to get the last drops out of the wet herb mix.
There it is: a perfect tea-for-two! The spearmint makes the tea taste really good. The addition of rosehips colors the infusion bright red. The rosehip matter will sink to the bottom of the mug; to prevent this, I occasionally stir the tea with a spoon. Sometimes I add a scoop of cranberries or blackcurrants. The currants lend a beautiful purple color and a full taste to the liquid.
I love knowing exactly what’s in this tea. This way, I have control over what I consume. Store-bought tea bags may be bleached; dirty hands may have handled the herbs. Chinese black tea is fermented on horseback during the journey to the market, mixed with horse sweat and rain. No wonder that kind of tea never tasted good to me! Gathering my own wild herb tea also saves me money, provides pleasure, contributes to good health, and helps me enjoy what Nature has to offer. In addition, it tastes much better! I enjoy my colorful cup of vitamins and minerals – a cup of summer sunlight on a dark winter day.
Twenty Herb Tea Plants
This is a list of the twenty edible plants and their parts that I use for tea:
- Spearmint leaf
- Labrador tea flower and leaf
- Blackcurrant leaf and berries
- Juniper berry
- Red clover blossom
- White clover blossom
- Wild rose petals and hips
- Dandelion blossom, leaf, and root
- Yarrow flower
- Plantain leaf
- Coltsfoot leaf
- Wild raspberry leaf
- Wild strawberry leaf
- Chamomile tops
- Shepherd’s purse leaf
- Chickweed leaf and flowers
- Pigweed leaf
- Fireweed flowers
An Herb Tea Taste Test
An herb tea taste test has surprising results. First, I try alfalfa flower tea versus alfalfa leaf tea. All the herb books advise to make tea from the leaves, which are said to be good for the heart. However, this information doesn’t mean that I can’t make tea from blossoms. And, in my test, the flower tea proves much more pleasant than the leaf tea. So much so, that I won’t pick any leaves this year; I’ll just focus on the flowers. Alfalfa flowers make a very pleasant afternoon tea. The bright yellow infusion is pleasing to the eye as well. It leaves the teeth feeling clean; perhaps that’s because of the natural fluoride that occurs in alfalfa. The taste of this tea reminds me vaguely of alfalfa sprouts.
The second test consists of wild raspberry leaf versus wild strawberry leaf. My husband likes the strawberry leaf tea better. It’s somewhat milder than raspberry leaf tea, which is slightly bitter at the back of the tongue, but it tastes like paper to me. I prefer to include these herbs in my tea mix to get their benefits.
In a third test, I compare white clover blossom tea and red clover blossom tea. The red clover tea tastes better. Surprisingly, the white clover tea is slightly more bitter. I used to think that white clover added sweetness to the tea. Not so – our taste test proves the contrary.
The great winner is alfalfa, which has lots of character. We prefer alfalfa tea over any other individual wild herb tea.
I tasted all my herbs separately. When I made juniper berry tea, I let my husband guess what he was drinking. “Poison!” he answered. Indeed, juniper has an unpleasantly bitter taste. Chickweed tea tastes like spinach. Rose petal tea tastes delicately like perfume. Even so, I had enough after a few sips.
That’s why my solution is to mix all herbs together into a rich mix to make an amazingly good-tasting tea!
Sophie Carlson lives on a solar-powered homestead in northern British Columbia. She bakes her own bread, makes her own salves, and creates her own soaps. She cooks all her family’s food from scratch and grows their own vegetables. She immigrated to Canada to enjoy its wild places and loves to roam the outdoors. A nurse by profession, she prefers to share a cup of wild herb tea rather than hand out pills. This article first appeared in Natural Life Magazine.