Tea it Up: Growing Herbs & Brewing Tea
Coffee may be the drink of choice for early morning wake up calls, but when it’s time to relax – especially if winter has breathed its cool air over Florida – nothing says comfort like curling up with a warm blanket and a hot cup of tea. While traditional tea comes from a specific plant, herbal teas can be made from just about any plant, simply add water. Here, we chat with local folk herbalist Willow La Monte for her insight on how to grow and brew the perfect cup.
Willow La Monte has been an organic gardener for 44 years, building Willow Herbal Delight Gardens, a one-acre, organic edible plant nursery in Valrico, over the last decade. She specializes in growing herbs and teaches organic gardening practices. She also sells plants at St. Petersburg’s Saturday Morning Market, Tampa’s Sweetwater Organic Farm Sunday Market, the USF student-run FARM market and the Plant City Get Fresh Market. Visit her urban gardens by appointment: 813-643-7285.
HERBS: A WHAT-TO-GROW-WHERE GUIDE
Anise verbena (Lippia alba)
Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis
Partial to Full Sun
Black and green tea shrub (Camellia sinensis)
Catnip (Nepeta cataria)
Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla)
Florida betony (Stachys floridana)
Mojito mint (Mentha x villosa)
Vietnamese mint (Mentha x gracilis)
Lemon verbena (Lippia citriodora
Roselle tea hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa)
Rosemary (Rosmarimus officinalis)
We have the luxury of growing a diverse range of herbs here in central Florida, but since the intensity of our climate can be harsh for some plants, Willow recommends planting two gardens: one for herbs that grow well in full or partial shade and richer soil, and another for those herbs that prefer full sun and sandy soil with good drainage.
Oak trees make a great shade-provider, since the soil around them is naturally fertile. “Oak leaves are one of the best things to feed plants and retain soil moisture,” says Willow. Even for plants that need more sun, using oak leaves as mulch keeps the soil a few degrees cooler, and helps maintain plants longer.
“You can also use Spanish moss [another plant abundant in Florida] as an insulator during cooler months,” Willow shares.
If you’re short on space and want to grow in containers, keep in mind the potting soil used for containers tends to be acidic. Some herbs, like lavender, need more alkaline soil. Adding limestone and dolomite can bring up the pH level, or you can add local sand.
The general amount of measure for using loose-leaf herbal tea is a handful … your handful. If making tea for a child or someone very different in size than you, use their hand as a guide. Of course, if you’re drinking herbal tea for the first time, use a smaller amount to make sure you don’t have any allergies.
Hot tea: Bring filtered or spring water to a full boil on the stove. A rolling boil oxygenates the water, so the healing properties of the herbs can be further infused. For hard herbs like roots (ginger), stems (lemongrass) or barks (cinnamon), let them simmer for about 15 minutes. Before adding any soft herbs such as flowers or leaves, turn the water off and let it cool slightly first. The longer the herbs steep, the more flavorful and potent the tea is.
Cold-infused tea: These teas are based on aromatics, and work much like cooking with garlic. Rub, bruise or cut the herbs, like mint or rosemary, to release their flavor and scent into cold spring or filtered water. Willow likes a chamomile and catnip blend, which is good for lessening headaches and calming stress (catnip has the opposite effect on humans than it does on cats).
Sun and moon teas: Place flowers and herbs in spring or filtered water and put in the sun for a few hours or set out at dusk for a morning tea infused by moonlight. Tender spring leaves of organically grown citrus such as kefir lime, orange and rose blossoms are fragrant additions to this tea to preserve delicate flavors, as are the leaves of fruiting plants like strawberries, blackberries and raspberries.
CINNAMON GINGER HERBAL TEA