The Tea House at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons
There’s nothing quite as British as a nice cup of tea, and sitting down for a good cuppa can certainly brighten up your day. A tea bush is unlikely to thrive in most UK gardens (although there are a couple of tea plantations) because of the climate, but there are plenty of herbs that are easy to grow and make a refreshing brew. They’ll even grow well in containers – so they make ideal plants for a windowbox or a patio. Having them close at hand means you can harvest leaves as and when you need them.
One of the first plants that springs to mind for herbal teas is also one of the easiest to grow. Mints are rampant plants, happy to grow pretty much anywhere, and are often confined to containers simply to keep them under control. There are lots of mint varieties to choose from, spearmint and peppermint being the most familiar. Both are good for tea, although if you want to try making a traditional Moroccan mint tea then spearmint is the one to go for.
To make mint tea, simply steep 4 or 5 leaves in water that has boiled and then cooled slightly, for upwards of 5 minutes. A teapot or a mug with a lid helps to keep the flavour in. Moroccan mint tea uses spearmint to add flavour to green tea. Whichever way you like it, mint teas are good for aiding digestion and settling the stomach.
If you’re feeling adventurous then try one of the fancier mints – maybe pineapple mint or even chocolate mint will tempt your tastebuds. Check the label when you buy your plant – some mints are hardier than others, and you may need to give yours some protection (or bring it indoors) during the winter.
Closely related to the mints, and just as easy to grow, is lemon balm. Again, there are several varieties, but most have the same lemony flavour. A cup of lemon balm tea is very soothing, and may help if you have a cold or flu.
Mints and lemon balm need repotting or dividing every year or so – they don’t like outgrowing their container. Repotting is simply a matter of moving the plant into a larger pot, but a mature plant can be split into pieces (in autumn, or early spring). It takes a bit of effort to chop or wrench the roots apart, but each rooted piece can then be replanted and grown on or given away. But don’t try growing mint or lemon balm in a container with other plants – they’re thugs and will quickly take over.
Three other common kitchen herbs that can be used to make herbal teas are rosemary, thyme and sage. These are all plants that came from warmer climes and enjoy sunshine and dry weather. They’re hardy, and easy to grow, and brewing them into a tea is as simple as clipping a sprig or a few leaves and steeping it in hot water. Rosemary tea is good for an uneasy stomach and said to aid memory; sage is soothing for sore throats and colds and thyme tea with a little honey can ease a tickly cough.
Whichever herbs you choose to grow for your tea pot, they will bring you an added bonus. Herb flowers are perfect for bees and other beneficial insects, and will draw them into the garden. And if you position them next to paths and seats, all you need do is pass your hands through the foliage to release their scents into the air.
This article first appeared in Country Gardener in April 2009.