Agastache foeniculum, Mint Family
Anise hyssop brightens many home gardens with its long-lasting purple spikes. The leaves and flowers taste like licorice and can be snipped into salad as easily as they can be turned into sweet tea. Also consider root beer-flavored sunset hyssop (A. rupestris) and bright pink bubble gum mint (A. cana), says Tammi Hartung, herbalist and author of "Growing 101 Herbs that Heal." These beauties attract butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees.
Growing Conditions: This perennial is low-fuss. It will grow in rich or poor soil in full sun to partial shade. Grow from seed, seedling, cutting, or root division. Harvest the top two-thirds of the plant, just above a node, every few weeks. Zones 4-10.
Special Needs: Anise hyssop rarely suffers from disease or pests. However, it may seed itself throughout your garden.
Tea Attributes: Anise hyssop will lighten and sweeten any tea with its licorice flavor. It blends well with mints, chamomile, lemon balm, and rose petals.
Ocimum basilicum, Mint Family
Most of us think of basil as a pesto plant. However, its spicy aromatic flavor also makes a surprisingly delicious tea. Of the more than 400 herbs that Jekka McVicar grows, she says "I consider basil my to be my morning cuppa." Also check out the purple-hued holy basil (Ocimum sanctum), which has an aromatic, sweet taste and is revered in Ayurvedic medicine.
Growing Conditions: This herb thrives in a sunny location in well-drained rich soil. Basil species are well suited for containers, as seen throughout the Mediterranean neighborhoods, as well as in Indian temples. Grow from seed, buy seedlings, or use a cutting. Harvest the top two-thirds of the plant, just above a node, every few weeks. Basil will grow in all zones as an annual.
Special Needs: Young basil plants are prone to "dampening off" due to fungus in wet soil. "Water the plants in the morning-not at night-so the plant does not go to bed wet," suggests McVicar. Basil will not tolerate a touch of frost.
Tea Attributes: Enjoy basil on its own, with mints, lemon balm, or jasmine green tea.
Monarda spp, Mint Family
"The flowers of this herb are stunning," says McVicar. True to its name, bee balm is a favorite of bees and hummingbirds thanks to its sweet nectar and bright red, pink and purple blooms. Bee balm's great looks and low-maintenance care have earned it a place in many home gardens. However, few realize that the leaves and flowers make one of our best herbal teas, in spite of its other common names: Oswego tea and bergamont.
Growing Conditions: Bee balms prefer rich soil in full sun to partial shade. Water needs vary by species. Grow it by seeds, seedlings, or root division. Divide roots after three years. Harvest the top two-thirds of the plant, just above a node, every few weeks. Zones 4-9.
Special Needs: Powdery mildew can be a problem, but regular harvesting should keep it under control. Otherwise, cut the plant to ground level and remove all contaminated leaves, recommends McVicar. It will grow back.
Tea Attributes: Bee balm became popular after the Boston Tea Party for its similarity to black tea. "It tastes like posh Earl Grey," says McVicar. Its citrus-oregano-thyme flavor will change slightly from mild to spicy depending on the species, variety, and climate. It blends well with mild, sweet mints like apple mint, pineapple mint, and spearmint.
Matricaria recutita, Sunflower Family
The tiny daisy-like chamomiles cheer up any garden and give it a meadow feel. The flowers and foliage have a light pineapple-apple scent to them. Also consider the hardy perennial & Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), which can be used similarly.
Growing Conditions: Chamomile will thrive in most soils and conditions, though it prefers a sunny spot. Grow both types of chamomile by seed. Roman chamomile can also be grown by cuttings and root divisions. Dedicate a few leisurely mornings or afternoons throughout the growing season to collect the small flowers for tea. While it may take a while to harvest, their flavor will surpass any store-bought chamomile. German chamomile is an annual that often reseeds and can be grown in all zones. Roman chamomile is a perennial in zones 4-9.
Special Needs: Chamomile is extremely low-fuss.
Tea Attributes: Often enjoyed solo, fresh and dry chamomile flowers also provide a light pineapple-y flavor to tea. Consider blending chamomile with mints, alfalfa, and lemon balm.
Alchemilla mollis, Rose Family
Many gardeners prize lady's mantle for its crinkly, dew-kissed foliage even more than its subtle golden flowers. Lady's mantle is steeped in lore: Dewdrops collected from its leaves were believed to hold magical powers and keep women young.
Growing Conditions: Lady's mantle likes full sun to partial shade in dry or slightly moist soil. Grow this perennial from seed, seedling, or root division. Harvest the young leaves for tea. Zone 3-8.
Special Needs: Lady's mantle is low-maintenance, but cut it back after it flowers to prevent it from reseeding all over the garden.
Tea Attributes: Lady's mantle tea has a mild, astringent flavor that resembles Chinese tea. It blends well with mints, lemon balm, hibiscus flowers, and raspberry leaves.
Melissa officinalis, Mint Family
Lemon balm masquerades as its relative Menthas until you rub its leaves to release its intense lemon fragrance. It is loved by bees and other winged pollinators as well as herbalists, who use it for a relaxing tea.
Growing Conditions: True to its mint genes, "Lemon balm will grow in almost any soil and in any position," says McVicar. You can purchase seedlings, grow it from seed, use a cutting, or root division. Harvest the top two-thirds of the plant, just above a node, every few weeks. Zones 4-9.
Special Needs: Lemon balm's root runners can get invasive. Keep it container-bound or dig out the plant if it spreads too far. Also be sure to cut it back before it goes to seed to prevent rampant reseeding.
Tea Attributes: This herb's bright lemon flavor is prized by tea blenders; however, it is also slightly bitter. Mints, anise hyssop, tarragon, chamomile, and other lemony herbs like lemon verbena, lemon grass, and lemon thyme will all lighten lemon balm's flavor.
Thymus citriodorus, Mint Family
This shrubby evergreen herb will wind around rocks and along walkways, or hold its own in a formal garden bunch. It is less pungent than common thyme (T. vulgaris) and has a citrus flavor enjoyed by both herbalists and chefs. The tiny lavender blooms attract bees and other winged pollinators.
Growing Conditions: Thyme likes poor, well-drained soil in full sun to partial shade. Thyme can be grown by seedling, seed, cuttings, root division, or layering. Harvest the leaves and flowers at any time. Sheer it up to two-thirds down the stem. Zones 5-9.
Special Needs: Thyme requires little care, but it will rot if it becomes too wet during a cold winter, warns McVicar.
Tea Attributes: Lemon thyme adds a warm, slightly spicy lemon taste to tea. It blends well with fresh lemon wedges, freshly grated ginger, cinnamon, lemon balm, lemon verbena, common thyme, bee balm, and mints.
Mentha spp, Mint Family
No tea garden is complete without at least one mint. Beyond peppermint and spearmint, consider species and variety with other subtle flavors including apple, pineapple, chocolate, orange, ginger, and lemon. Do be careful when planting mints as they can be aggressive spreaders.
Growing Conditions: Mints are readily available in nurseries and can also be grown from cuttings and root divisions. They do not grow well by seed-flavor will be lost. Mint grows in a variety of soils and conditions. Some species, including spearmint, thrive in damp soil. Harvest the top two-thirds of the plant, just above a node, every few weeks. Zones 5-9.
Special Needs: Help control mint from spreading by keeping it sparsely watered, says Hartung. Also consider keeping it container-bound to control the roots. It may occasionally get powdery mildew, but this can be discouraged with regular harvesting.
Tea Attributes: Mint is the most recognized herbal tea. It blends well with other Mentha species and mint family relatives including anise hyssop, bee balm, lemon balm, basil, thyme, and rosemary. It also combines nicely with chamomile, rose petals, cinnamon or bland herbs like nettle and alfalfa.