Whether for tea time or your morning cuppa, your tea likely comes from overseas. However, there are many teas made from materials that you can grow or forage here in Maine if you are interested in herbal teas in particular.
The plant used for most types of tea, Camellia sinensis, is primarily grown in Asia, Africa, South America and around the Black and Caspian seas. The four biggest tea-producing countries today are China, India, Sri Lanka and Kenya, which comprise 75 percent of world production all together.
If you want black, oolong, green, white, yellow or dark tea like pu-erh, you could attempt to grow Camellia sinensis, though the plant prefers mild climates with ample rainfall and well-drained, acidic soil, which is more characteristic of growing regions in the southern United States than in Maine.
If you like herbal teas, though, there are plenty of opportunities to creatively grow or forage your own materials in Maine.
“Using homegrown and locally foraged plants for tea is not only rewarding but sustainable,” said Sarah Ferry, owner of Royal Pine Apothecary in Portland. “Many ingredients used in large-scale tea companies are sourced from all around the world. Growing and making your own tea blends ensures you know where all the ingredients came from.”
Growing tea in your garden
Carlisle Amlak, an herbalist and owner of Maha Vidya Yoga and Ayurveda in South Berwick, said that you might want to start by considering herbs that you normally wouldn’t think about for tea.
“Kitchen herbs and aromatic teas like sage, mints, basil, lemongrass, lemon balm, calendula and thyme…can be used in meal preparation or for fresh teas that are simply delightful,” Amlak said. “There is nothing quite like fresh herbs in your meals or daily cup.”
You can grow some of these herbs for tea in your garden. Amlak grows herbs like sage, mint, basil and oregano, as well as plants like bee balm, verbena, yarrow, tulsi and lavender to use for tea.
“Beyond that, our yard offers an array of wild herbs including elderberry, valerian, mullein, mugwort, St. John’s wort and evening primrose,” she said.
Jane Brekke, owner of Little Linden Herbals in South Berwick, said the other plants that make delicious tea that grow well in Maine include chamomile, lemon balm, rosemary, calendula, comfrey and borage.
“The first step to success is making sure that you have the varieties of these plants that will do well in our gardening zones,” she said. “Taking time to learn about each plant and the growing conditions they prefer will go a long way in giving your plants a chance to thrive. Most common garden herbs are easily used by simply harvesting the blooms or healthy green leaves of the plants.”
Foraging for tea
If you don’t have a green thumb, you can also forage for a variety of plants in Maine that can be used for teas.
“In my opinion, foraging for plants is the most rewarding way to start an herbal tea blend,” Brekke said. “Some very common plants in Maine that make wonderful ingredients in herbal teas include rose hips, white pine needles, winterberry, blueberry, elderberry [and] black birch. If you’re lucky, you can find St. John’s wort, burdock and yellow dock growing in disturbed lands. Roots in teas often get overlooked, but dandelion, burdock and yellow dock make extremely nourishing additions to infusions.”
Ferry said that other plants you can forage for tea in Maine include elderflower, chaga mushroom, wild mint, red clover, mugwort, yarrow, mullein, nettle and raspberry leaf.
Make sure you are foraging responsibly, though. Check that you have permission to forage on the land where you are searching for materials, and do your research to ensure you are properly identifying plants.
“Foraged parts of plants vary depending on the purpose and plant,” Amlak said. “[Look] for healthy plants, away from main roads, pollution and the potential for chemical treatments. [It’s] important to harvest thoughtfully, only taking what you will use and never exhausting the wild garden.”
Ferry also recommended harvesting plants on a dry day, usually in the morning before the heat of the day has set in.
“Make sure the plants you’re harvesting are free of bugs, eggs or an excess amount of damage or wilting,” she added.
Brekke said that you might want to do some research to figure out what parts of the plant are best for tea.
“Foraged plants like elderberry not only require proper identification but also need to be prepared in a certain way,” Brekke said. “It’s always best to do your research first.”
Preparing homemade tea
Once you have your ingredients, you have to prepare them. The first step, Ferry said, is to determine your blend.
“Determine the purpose of your tea blend, for example, relaxation or digestion support,” Ferry said. “Decide on the main herbs you want to use for your blend, and then pick a few herbs that will support the purpose of the main herbs, and finish by choosing an aromatic or flavorful herb that will mix well with the other herbs. I always make small batches of tea blends and test them out before making anything in large quantity to make sure I like the flavor and am not wasting plants.”
You also want to dry your tea-making ingredients, either in a food dehydrator or by hanging the herbs in bundles in a cool, dry location.
“Dried plants give teas stronger flavors with less plant material, so you need to adjust amounts accordingly,” Brekke said. “Blending tea can get very nuanced when it comes to flavor profiles. Understanding these processes requires proper education through schooling or extensive personal education and experience.”
From top left (clockwise): Tulsi rose nettle tea; Homemade tea made with homegrown tulsi, nettle, St. John’s wort, sage, tansy and calendula; Tea blend made with homegrown mugwort, vervain, lavender, hyssop, bergamot, pansy, mint and roses; Homegrown tulsi rose nettle tea alongside fresh roses. Credit: Courtesy of Carlisle Amlak
Amlak said you might need to take additional steps, depending on the plant you are using. For example, barks and roots generally need to be simmered in a pot of boiling water to extract the flavor, while delicate herbs and flowers can be enjoyed by simply infusing them in cold or hot water.
Ultimately, though, experimentation is the best way to figure out your favorite Maine-grown herbal tea blends.
“There really is not a right or wrong way to go about it,” Brekke said. “Once you know you have safe and nourishing plants, you can play around and see what you like. One of my favorite ways to enjoy herbal blends is to cut fresh flowers and leaves from my garden. Anything that is growing that catches my eye, then throw them into a big glass jar and fill with water. I let this sit in the sun for a few hours and drink. It always tastes wonderful – no matter what I choose.”