The tea leaves of summer


Lemon verbrna tea made from Barbara Damrosch’s garden. (Barbara Damrosch)
Contributor September 4, 2013

“Hippie tea or drug tea?” Such is the choice we offer to those who decline the coffee option. Regular lunch visitors know what it means — herbal tea or the standard, black, caffeine-loaded kinds such as English Breakfast or Earl Grey.

I’m a dark French roast, organic, fair-trade java junkie myself, but hippie teas have a place in my life, too, and lately I’ve been wanting to expand our repertoire. Especially while it’s still summer, when the best path to a good cup of tea leads not from the pantry cupboard but from the garden.

Barbara Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.” View Archive

Sure, I’ll dry an armful of mint for steaming mugs in wintertime. Everybody loves mint, which is more than I can say for chamomile. Soothing? Yes. Easy to grow? Too easy; it spreads almost as badly as mint does. It’s a pretty crop, because the tea is made not from foliage but from tiny white daisy-like blossoms. But it’s a bit murky in the cup.

Lemon verbena, on the other hand, is in a class by itself. Its narrow leaves on long slender stems, overhanging a path, send up a vapor of grass green and lemony gold if your legs brush them in passing. Medicinal? I have no idea, but its flavor makes such a beeline to my pleasure center that I don’t mind buying the frost-tender plants each year.

Looking for new tea flavors, I recently set out for the herb garden with snips and a basket. Then I steeped my harvest in hot water, using glasses so that I could see the colors. Lemon balm, which has spread shamelessly, had a nice pale yellow color and good flavor. “A little honey and cream might make it more interesting,” my husband said. Bergamot (a.k.a. the bee balm in the flower garden) made a drab, slightly pinkish tea, like a weak mint. No wonder the colonists rebelled when the embargo on English tea forced them to drink bergamot instead. Royalty might be despised, but at least one Earl was missed.

Steeped fennel and cilantro both seemed like teas that ought to be savory broths instead, with salt and pepper, carrots and onions.

Fruit sage, also called fruit-scented sage, was this year’s garden experiment. I’d grown some plants to use as filler in flower bouquets, but after four or five days they drooped a bit in the vase. Maybe they belonged in a teacup, I reasoned. The tea’s color was quite golden and the flavor inoffensive, but the fruitiness was more in the aroma than in the taste. We decided to dump it in with the lemon balm, and together they made a surprisingly good team, but some of the fruit sage’s wonderful nose was lost.

Perhaps the milder fruity, minty, lemony herbs do best as iced teas, fortified with honey, or in tall glasses fortified with rum (bergamot Mojito, anyone?). I might try steeping them slowly in a glass jar on a sunny day without the addition of boiling water, to keep the taste fresher and the antioxidants intact. Then I’ll add the ice. A glass pitcher of honey-sweetened lemon verbena tea on a hot day, with the sun shining through green, freshly picked sprigs, is hard to resist, a last toast to summer.

Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”

Tip of the week

For late-season greens — ideal for sandwiches — fill a 12-inch pot with potting soil to an inch below its lip and sprinkle seeds of a mesclun or other salad mix. Cover the seeds with a thin layer of soil and water gently. Keep the seeds moist and thin seedlings as needed. In two to three weeks, you can harvest the greens first as additional thinnings and then by snipping with scissors to allow regrowth through the fall. The mini garden will work in full sun or light shade, but make sure it drains freely and keep an eye out for squirrels.

— Adrian Higgins

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