New Jersey Tea, once used as a tea alternative in the Revolutionary War, now finds a place in the Ladue wild garden. photo courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden

Tea is part of my cultural heritage. On a display shelf in our home are many antique tea pots from ancestors on both sides of my family. Whatever you choose to call it—tea, tisane, infusion, decoction—I love tea from both home and abroad.

    One of the first plants to emerge in my spring garden this year was the lemon balm. It comes back each year with vigor. I snipped a few stems, crushed them a little and dashed them into a pitcher with hot tap water for a refreshing herbal infusion, later served over ice. Lemon verbena, a very fragrant, tender sage, must be re-planted every year, but makes a lovely tea blend with the lemon balm. As much as I love my morning coffee, my afternoons are devoted to teas, herbal and home-grown or fragrant, black and exotic.

Traditional Green, Oolong and Black Teas

    The green teas of China and Japan are very unique. The cloud mountain teas from Lu Shan, picked on the upper, fog-shrouded ridges of the mountain, are very tender, fresh and aromatic green teas. When and how tea is harvested makes a difference in the finished product. Ming Quin tea, from Lu Shan, is harvested, hand-dried and ready to be served on the same day. The Chinese put a large pinch of whole green tea leaves in the bottom of an individual tea mug, pour boiling water over and place the tea mug lid on top to seal in the aromatics while steeping. Japanese Matcha green tea is celebrated with a more complex tea ceremony called Chado. This tea is dried and pulverized into a jade green powder.

    Oolong tea is partially oxidized before drying and has a stronger flavor than green tea, but is milder than black tea. This method of processing increases the fragrance and fruitiness of the tea. The color of the finished leaves may range from green to brown or black.

    Black tea is fully oxidized before heat drying. Ceylon tea from Sri Lanka is one of the premium black C. sinensis teas. Further north in India, Darjeeling tea is popular. Keemun tea, from Anhui Province, China, is a regional cultivar of C. sinensis and is used as the base for most English breakfast teas. We recently enjoyed the chai spice blends that are based on black Assam teas and made with added spices like cardamom, ginger, allspice, nutmeg, clove, coriander and cinnamon.

Great Teas of the World

    Young white-tip tea is the premium harvest, with silver-needle tea being the very best quality. It is from the first flush of spring growth and harvested only for a very short time each spring in Fujian Province. Pu-erh tea, from Yunnan, is more oxidized than oolong or regular black tea, with a second fermentation. It is made into cakes or blocks and aged for further flavor development. The leaves have such strong flavor character that they are meant to be used for more than one brewing.

    There are several ‘red’ teas: rooibos from South Africa, hibiscus sepals from Mexico or hibiscus flowers from China, as well as the red, high vitamin C-containing tea made from rose hips out of your own autumn garden.

    In other globe-trotting travels with Peter, I’ve had some great tea experiences. We just returned from Ecuador where guayusa tea from the rainforest is served alongside sachets of local lemon verbena tea. Yerba maté from Mexico, con leché calienté (with hot milk), is a great caffeine-containing alternative to coffee. Most of these plants are not technically ‘teas’ but tisanes or infusions—a minor and semantic distinction.

Home-Grown Herbal Houseplant and Kitchen Teas

    True tea may be grown as a potted plant. Lemon myrtle eucalyptus, from Australia, also makes a good houseplant. The Meyer lemons that I rave about have blossoms that make a very fine homemade tea. Lemon peel can be used fresh or dried to add citrusy richness to herbal tea. Sweet jasmine is easy to grow in a pot and often is used to enhance black tea.

    Orange zest from fresh oranges served at breakfast may be recycled in your afternoon tea. Fresh ginger makes a wonderful zingy, spicy tea that is great for soothing stomach upsets. We used ginger tea while sailing with the Ecuadorian Navy as a natural remedy for seasickness.

Found Teas – Already in Your Garden?

    Chrysanthemum tea is a regular offering throughout China. It is very similar to chamomile tea, which also is easy to grow here. Use the early pinch prunings off of your autumn chrysanthemums for a fresh pot of tea.

    One of the best flowers for tea comes from the linden tree. Many large trees are planted around the Shaw neighborhood and in the Missouri Botanical Garden. Tisane of linden is very popular in Europe and may be made with fresh or dried flowers.

Ideas for New Plantings

    The most classic homegrown teas come from the mint family. Perhaps the best way to distinguish between icy peppermint and saucy spearmint is to brew tea with them. Best harvested in July and August, then dried in the shade, mints keep their flavor well. Just remember to confine these mints as they may be overly aggressive in the garden.

    Ceanothus americanus, or New Jersey tea, makes a lovely filler in the dry woodland glade. It will grow in several levels of shade or sun and once established, tolerates reasonably dry conditions. It takes the summer heat very well and is found native in Missouri where it often grows on the edges of prairies in full sun. In our local conditions, it will grow about knee-high.

    The toothache plant, Spilanthes oleracea, is a wonderfully well-behaved plant with button-like flowers that make an excellent border edging. Chewing the leaves or flowers will numb your mouth and throat, hence its common name.

    Lemongrass, Cymbopogon citratus, makes a bold vertical statement in the garden, reaching three to five feet in height during one season. Used extensively in Thai and Vietnamese cooking, it also makes a great fresh tea. Not a winter-hardy variety, it needs to be re-planted each spring. It is a sleeper though, one day a small sprig and the next a huge clump. Harvest, chop and dry in late summer or early fall. It may also be frozen for later use.

Sweet, Sweet Southern Tea

    As a Southerner, I grew up with sweet tea, syrupy iced tea brought to the table with tons of sugar already in it. If you like your tea sweet, try honeyleaf, Stevia rebaudiana, a natural zero-calorie sweetener. The Stevia plant is fun to grow in the garden. It makes a very full, bushy plant about two feet across that is covered in tiny, insignificant-to-the-eye flowers. We may not notice them, but every pollinator in the vicinity will be buzzing around this plant. Julie puts a couple in her vegetable beds every year to improve pollination and fruit set of her crops. You can buy processed Stevia at the grocery store, but it is way more fun to grown your own. Happy brewing!  LN

Patricia Raven, Ph.D., has a doctorate in ornamental horticulture and Julie Hess is senior horticulturist at the Missouri Botanical Garden.