Extension Educator, Horticulture
Over the last week I rediscovered the bliss of cuddling a cup of hot tea. A comforting, soothing, calming cup of warmth. Packages of plain black tea are now overwhelmed on the grocery store shelves with all sorts of flavors, essences and varieties. Black, oolong, green and white teas all come from the same plant (Camellia sinensis). The leaves or young buds are processed differently to produce their characteristic flavors. Black tea is the strongest flavor while white is the mildest and least processed. Tea is native to Asia. The best quality teas grow at high elevations of sub-tropical to tropical areas. Since our highest elevations are highway overpasses and sub-tropical is not in our description, you can forget a patch of true tea in your backyard.
However, the fresh or dried flowers and/or leaves of herbs can also be used to make teas. Many herbs useful for tasty teas grow well as perennials here in Illinois. Mints are high on the list of great garden tea plants. Any sunny garden area with good moisture retention is best for quality mints.
The suggestion of purposefully planting mints in the garden may evoke fear in many seasoned gardeners as they envision mint plants invading every nook and cranny of their landscape. Mints do have a well-deserved reputation for growing too well with their ever expanding underground stems. However, with a little pre-planning you can enjoy mints in iced and hot teas in summer and winter with mint as the only four-letter word. Mints are sure to provide plenty to harvest. Stems and leaves can be cut within 2-3 inches of the ground a couple times during the growing season.
If you don't want mints to travel in the garden, determine a plan for their confinement before planting. Mints grow well in containers such as wooden half barrels or 5 gallon buckets with drain holes. If you have purchased any trees or shrubs lately, their large plastic pots are perfect for "confine-mint". Cut out the bottom of the plastic pots, dig a comparable size hole and sink the pot into the ground so at least 6 inches appears above ground and 12 inches below ground. Refill pot with garden soil and plant your happy (but confined) mint.
Peppermint and spearmint are the most commonly used mints for teas. However there are many different mints such as apple, orange and chocolate mint each with their own flavors. Mint plants can easily be shared among gardeners as divisions in spring or purchased plants. Although seed germination can be slow, some may be started from seed. The herb peppermint (Mentha x piperita) is a cross between two types of mint (water mint and spearmint) and is best purchased as plants rather than seeds.
Beebalm also called Oswego tea (Monarda didyma) and Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) are beautiful perennial plants for gardens and are members of the mint family. Flower colors vary from white to pink to purple. Each flower is a miniature explosion of nectar tubes perfect for hummingbirds and bees. All the mints appear popular among pollinators. As North American natives beebalm and Wild bergamot grow well in most sunny gardens. The fresh or dried leaves and flowers can be used to make a minty tea. For all you Earl Grey tea fans the oil of bergamot that is the main flavoring in Earl Grey black tea comes from the oil from the rind of a citrus (bergamot orange) and not this beebalm bergamot.
Plan now to add some tea plants to your garden this year. I will continue our tea time in next week's article.
University of Illinois Herb Day Saturday, January 18, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Holiday Inn Hotel and Conference Center in Urbana. Info: 217-244-1693 or firstname.lastname@example.org