I am fairly new to foraged teas, long having seen the world as having essentially two types of tea – normal tea (Camellia sinensis) and hippy tea (all the others). I’ve done little more than dabble with herbal teas before and so haven’t gotten around to foraging for them; and I don’t know anywhere that normal tea is growing wild. But now, initially for no more directed a health benefit than something before bed that tastes great and specifically isn’t tea with caffeine (or wine or whiskey), and then secondarily with some thought to tailored health benefits, I have been working up foraged herbal tea alternatives.
The currently favoured flavour is a mix I have been able to gather easily through spring and early summer that works as a smooth balance of mostly mint (Mentha spp.), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and lemon myrtle (Backhousia citriodora). To this I usually add some other leaves that come along at the time, but that three-species foundation seems like it will be hard to beat. Other additions have been for taste, health potential, or simply because they were there; like leaves of strawberry, mulberry, dandelion or nettle. The dehydrated leaves get 5 minutes steeping in a coffee plunger (dried leaf parts often crumble very small and the need to strain well makes a plunger perfect for the job) and served with a bit of honey stirred in and an optional sliver of lemon (or dried lemon zest). In months to come the available ingredients will change and so, no doubt, will the recipe.
There are some definite and proven health benefits and malady-specific treatments that are possible with herbal teas (along with a fair few that seem fanciful). This is something that foraged tea has in common with foraged weed eating, and so I take the same basic approach: First of all selecting based on availability and taste preference; then aiming generally to consume a little of a lot of different types and never one in excess; and finally picking up information along the way that might allow me to tweak consumption a little towards mine and my family’s particular nutritional needs (including some things better avoided).
For now, here is what has become my spring / summer holy trinity for foraged herbal tea:
Mint (Mentha spp.)
Mint tea is usually made from peppermint (M. piperita) and is reputed to be good for digestion and calming. Anti-cancer claims are also made, as well as warnings about messing with levels of hormones like testosterone. Mint has been a rampant ‘volunteer’ (what you call a weed when it is useful) in our community garden (until slayed by recent drought) and can be found invasively heading out from herb gardens in a lot of places. Once you find somewhere that mint is growing well, you would be likely to be doing the owner a favour by taking some away. Or if it is struggling, your harvest might be justified by meeting its common want of regular water – I have been watering a couple of stands I forage from during our current dry.
Fennel leaf (Foeniculum vulgare)
Fennel tea is usually based on seeds rather than leaves and is especially popular with lactating women – or more particularly those who would like to be lactating more than they are. Other reported benefits are for eyesight, mood, sex drive, digestion, the liver and your blood (in what way I cannot tell from claims as generic as ‘blood cleanser’ and ‘blood tonic’). The fennel that grows wild across many parts of the world and the bulb fennel grown in gardens are different varieties of the same species; you don’t use the wild ones for bulbs, but either work for tea. Leaves and flowers have been a staple until recently, and seed foraging opportunities should begin within a few weeks.
Lemon myrtle (Backhousia citriodora)
Lemon myrtle is native in eastern Queensland, but grows fine in Sydney. It is the richest of all known sources of citral; which is that lemon grass / lemon verbena / lemonade ice block kind of lemon scent – something that I adore. In Sydney, lemon myrtle isn’t a hugely common garden species but it does occur here and there and is well worth planting either on your own place or in a public place that you can then forage from confident that few others will even know it is worth harvesting. It is not that distinctive a plant to look at, but one pinch of a leaf and a sniff and identification is assured. Other citral sources like lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora) or lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) could alternatively take its place. Lemon myrtle in tea is one of those ones with too many health benefit claims to go through. I should be able to get leaves all year round, though they will get tougher in winter; flowers were just an early summer treat.