AFTER weeks of winter weather that has been anything but normal, the season finally revealed its true self this month: the crisp mornings, the occasional afternoon showers -- the kind of quiet moments made for a cup of hot tea.
But don't settle for any brew, not when it can be infused with tantalizing fresh herbs from the backyard. Plants that constitute a tea garden are not only easy to grow in Southern California but also as pleasing to the eyes and nose as they are to the palate.
Purists say herbal "teas" made from the flowers, leaves, bark, roots or seeds of other plants should be called infusions or tisanes. The true tea plant, after all, is a round camellia shrub, Camellia sinensis.
Technicalities aside, the elements of what most people call "tea" come from various plant families, different continents and diverse environments, and each species has its own particular needs. Some herbs are handsome perennials, shrubs or small trees that can grace a garden for years. A few are annuals that must be restarted each year from seed.
In most cases, the gardener's challenge is to learn each plant's requirements for sun, water and the other necessities for a long life. Plant well, and you'll be rewarded with a cup of aromatherapy at its best: camomile that calms, spearmint that soothes, lemongrass that refreshes.
Some tea lovers turn to ginger for warmth, and others insist that allspice ignites the libido. Doctors may challenge those notions, but out in the garden, few dispute these plants' ability to pique the senses and alter one's mood.
Tread on pretty camomile, and the finely cut foliage smells of ripe apples. Two species are popular for their dime-size, daisy-like flowers, yellow and white blooms used for tea. Roman camomile, Chamaemelum nobile (sometimes listed as Anthemis nobilis), is a widely available low perennial with creeping stems. German camomile, Matricaria recutita (available through www.reneesgarden.com), is a 15-inch-high annual preferred by many for its sweeter, more profuse blossoms. Both thrive in full sun with regular water.
The best tea thymes are just as savory. Look to the same evergreen shrublets that cooks use: common or English thyme, Thymus vulgaris, and its cultivars 'Narrow-Leaf French,' 'Variegated Lemon' and 'Orange Balsam.' All do well with full sun, moderate water and no feeding, in the ground and in pots. A bonus: syrphus flies, minuscule wasps and other beneficial insects reap pollen from thyme's tiny pink or lavender flowers.
Other tea garden staples include true mints, including pungent peppermint, Mentha x piperita, and milder spearmint, Mentha spicata, and its cultivar 'Mint the Best.' These shadeloving perennials are invasive, however, and are best kept in pots to restrict their philandering roots. For lush, oil-rich leaves, the plants need regular water and light feedings during warm months.
Yerba buena, Satureja douglasii, is a minty evergreen perennial with heart-shaped leaves on thin stems. This California cousin to Europe's true mints creeps through moist shade and drapes nicely over rocks, walls and pot rims.
On sunny days, the sweet perfume of Cleveland sage, Salvia clevelandii, wafts through the air. The droughttolerant California native grows rapidly into a round bush 4 feet tall. Thick, gray-green leaves yield a robust tea for you, and the whorled, blue-purple flowers are enough to sate bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
Those critters are also drawn every autumn to the lipstick-red tubular flowers of pineapple sage, Salvia elegans. Many of these plants were damaged or killed by record low temperatures in January, but they're worth nurturing back to health or replacing. The downy green leaves emit fruity notes when brewed.
A taste of the tart
Colorful rose hips can give tea a pleasantly acidic accent -- and a hearty dose of vitamin C. Most roses grown for their hips are large, rambling plants that flower only once before setting seed. The crab-apple-size hips of Rosa rugosa 'Alba' are tomato-red and among the tastiest.
Few brews are tarter than ones made from roselle, Hibiscus sabdariffa, a red-leafed annual from the African tropics that's sometimes called flor de Jamaica. Ruby-red calyxes, the pie-shaped sections at the base of the seed pod, are responsible for the color and zing in Celestial Seasonings Red Zinger tea.
Roselle plants are started from seed in early spring; they grow quickly to 3 feet before flowering in August. Ripe pods are harvested shortly thereafter. Look for young plants at nurseries or the spring plant sale at the Huntington Botanical Gardens. For seeds, try www.botanicalinterests.com.