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Brew Ha Ha in the Herb Garden

Besides Being Tasty, Fresh Herbal Teas Can Have Medicinal Value


The first time Martha Wida of Westminster made a cup of herbal tea from her garden, she was pleasantly surprised.

"That was by far the best cup of tea I'd ever had," said Wida, who is past president of the California Organic Gardening Club and a University of California master gardener.

Besides being tasty, fresh herbal teas also have medicinal value, said Tess Calhoun, a member of the Orange County Herb Society, who will host the club's annual tea May 6.

"Mint and chamomile tea, for instance, are known for calming the stomach and aiding in digestion, and they're both really easy to grow in the garden," Calhoun said.

"Herbal teas are very helpful for those people trying to live a healthier lifestyle," agreed registered dietitian Susan Weiner of Merrick, N.Y., a nutritionist for the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid. "Teas made from the garden are calming, soothing, taste great and are calorie free. Iced herbal tea is the perfect alternative to preservative-laden soda."

Growing and brewing herbal tea is easy. Many good tea herbs such as mint, chamomile, basil, lemon balm and anise hyssop grow quickly if planted at this time of year.

Mixing blends is tricky to do, but a treat to taste, said Renee Shepherd, owner of Felton, Calif.-based Renee's Garden seeds, which carries a variety of herb seeds.

"Creating herbal tea blends is considered an art and those professionals who create tea mixes are highly paid," Shepherd said. "Dream up your own fabulous blends fresh from the garden."

To create herbal tea, keep the following tips in mind:

* Figure on two to three tablespoons of fresh herbs for each cup of tea and one to two tablespoons of dry herbs per cup. To make a four cup pot of tea, you'll need 8-12 tablespoons of fresh herbs or 4-8 tablespoons of dried. Iced tea requires more herbs because you'll be diluting it with ice. Try four tablespoons fresh or two tablespoons dried per cup.

* To make the best pot of herbal tea possible, start with cool water and bring just to an audible rolling boil. Rinse a china or glass teapot with a small amount of hot water to warm the pot. Add herbs and fill the pot with hot water. Steep three to five minutes. Use a tea strainer when pouring.

* Add any desired sweeteners such as sugar or honey after pouring the tea. Or for an all-herbal approach, put some sweet leaf (stevia) in herbal tea mix and you won't need other sweeteners.

* Try various additions to tea, such as lemon or orange slices, juice, cinnamon sticks, cloves and fresh ginger.

* Dry excess herbs. This enables you to enjoy them when they're not growing. Most herbs dry easily indoors in a shady area with good air circulation. Hang upside down or dry on screens. After they dry, strip herbs from branches and store in tightly sealed glass jars away from strong light. Replace herbs each season.

Good Tea Herbs

You can use just about any herb to make tea. The following tend to be widely available and make especially tasty herbal tea:

* Anise hyssop: This herb has a licorice or anise flavor that is especially good when combined with mint. Its lavender flowers are attractive to butterflies. Grow from plants or seed in spring and summer in full sun or partial shade.

* Basil: Cinnamon and lemon basil are particularly good for making herbal tea. This aromatic annual thrives in hot weather. Grow from seed or plants. Prefers rich, well-drained soil and full sun or partial shade.

* Chamomile: Plant in a sunny spot with rich soil and good drainage. The small, daisy-like flowers of this low-growing, decorative perennial are used for tea and impart an apple-like flavor. Harvest when the blooms are beginning to open by pinching the flower blossoms off with your fingers.

* Fennel: This perennial herb can grow 4 to 6 feet high. It comes in green and bronze varieties. Leaves and seeds lend a sweet licorice flavor to tea. Plant in full sun in rich, well-drained soil.

* Lemon balm: Also known as bee balm, this perennial herb adds a lemon tang to tea. Fresh leaves have the best flavor. Likes rich soil and good drainage. Best grown from plants, as it is slow to germinate.

* Lemon verbena: This 3- to 6-foot deciduous shrub has leaves that impart a strong lemon flavor to tea. Lemon verbena is the main ingredient in the popular Verveine tea sold commercially. Plant likes full sun or bright filtered light and good drainage.

* Lemon grass: All parts of this tender perennial are strongly lemon-scented and make an especially tasty lemon tea. Provide full sun and good drainage.

* Lemon thyme: This herb creates a tea with warm, lemony undertones. A small, shrubby perennial that is easy to grow. Prefers dry soil and full sun.

* Mint: A cool, refreshing perennial herb that comes in a wide variety of flavors, including peppermint, spearmint, chocolate, apple, pineapple and orange. Grows almost anywhere, but prefers moist, partially shaded areas. Plant is invasive, so grow in containers or bordered areas.

Pink Lemonade Tea

Tess Calhoun of the Orange County Herb Society shares one of her favorite herbal tea blend recipes:

Combine 1/4 cup dried pink fragrant roses, 1/4 cup dried red hibiscus flowers that can be found in the Mexican food section of most grocery stores, 1/8 cup pineapple sage blossoms (harvest and dry in the fall and winter when the plant blooms), 1/8 cup dried citrus flowers and 1/4 cup lemon verbena.

Add a handful of the herb mixture to a four-cup pot of water.

* The Orange County Herb Society meets the first Sunday of the month at 1 p.m. at the Irvine Ranch Water District building, 15600 San Canyon Ave., Irvine, (714) 374-5632.

* For a store in your area that carries Renee's Garden seeds, call (888) 880-7227 or visit http://www.renees

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