Using Herbs for Tea

chamomileHerbs are grown for many reasons — medicine, cooking, aromatherapy, garden beauty, or tea making. Teas made from the following plants can be drunk for medicinal purposes or just for their good taste.

Cowslip (Primula veris) is a lovely little spring plant usually admired for its colorful blossoms. It can also be a soothing tension reliever when its leaves are steeped for tea. Recommended for headaches, vertigo, or insomnia, the leaves can also be cooked or eaten raw. The plant's flowers can be added to salads or candied for cakes.

When you think of raspberry plants (Rubus sp.) you think of the berries, but the leaves are equally good for you. They have astringent and decongestant qualities, and their tea is recommended for colds, flu, tonsillitis and fevers. Add 1 to 1½ ounces of raspberry leaves to 8 ounces of boiling water, infuse for several minutes and…voila!

Ginger (Zingiber officinalis) has many uses, one of which is a digestive aid. Ginger ale is often used to settle stomachs. The plant's rhizome, or its underground stem, is its useful part. In its native India, a tea is made from the peeled, grated, or minced rhizome; cinnamon; and boiling water. Ginger tea is good for colds and flu.

Mints include a large group of wild and hybridized plants. The antiseptic menthol gives mint its fragrance and taste, cooling and warming simultaneously. Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) is a tea herb used as a decongestant to open up the sinuses.

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) was used 2,000 years ago by the Greeks, when it was known as "heart's delight." Lemon balm was reputed to renew youth and strengthen the brain. Infuse it as a tea for relief from chronic bronchial inflammation, feverish colds, and headaches. The lemony leaves are delicious raw in salads.

Wild bergamot (Monarda didyma) was infused as a drink by the Oswego Indians; this bit of information explains the plant's other common name, Oswego tea. Several Native American tribes used wild bergamot for colds and bronchial complaints. The plant contains thymol, a powerful antiseptic. After the Boston Tea Party, New England colonists used it as a tea substitute. Medicinally, the tea is used to relieve nausea and insomnia. Fresh flower petals liven up any salad, and dried flowers are used in potpourri.

Lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla) has a wonderful lemon flavor and scent. At a hectic time, a tea made from this Chilean native herb will relax and calm because of its very mild sedative properties. It can also soothe bronchial and nasal congestion and ease indigestion. Add a teaspoon of fresh, chopped leaves to vanilla ice cream for an unusual lemony dessert.

For sleeping problems, drinking a cup of tea made from hops (Humulus lupulus) before retiring works well as a sedative. Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) and catnip (Nepeta cataria) are also traditional bedtime teas, because they reduce anxiety and promote a restful sleep.

When preparing tea, use the purest water possible. Hard water or water with a high lime content can prevent plants from fully releasing their active ingredients. For hot tea, boil water, wait 30 seconds, then sprinkle the herbs onto the water to steep, or use an infuser. Stir occasionally for 10 minutes or leave overnight. Strain into a cup and drink lukewarm or cool. Hot tea helps break up coughs and colds. Use either fresh or dried herbs, depending on your taste. When measuring herbs, 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs equals 1 teaspoon of dry herbs. For the purest tea, avoid spraying all herbs or plant foliage with chemicals during the growing season.

This is just a sampling of what's available in the wonderful world of herbal teas. You can see dozens of herbs growing at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and you can learn more about growing and using them at the Garden's library. Experiment and enjoy!