Back in January, in honor of "National Hot Tea Month," I wrote of delicious hot teas you could make from herbs that grow easily here.
Now that the tea industry has declared June to be "National Iced Tea Month," it is time to continue the topic, but this time let's look at teas from some low-water landscape plants that need little care.
First, a caution. Moderation is key. Especially when trying a plant product you have never had before, try just a bit, then wait 24 hours before consuming again. All the herbs mentioned here are prepared as infusions, pouring boiling water over the dried material and allowing them to steep, like store-bought tea. Avoid decoctions, where the plants are placed in boiling water and held over heat. Sun tea that sits out for longer than a half hour at mid-day is a form of decoction, and is to be avoided with these herbs.
In all cases, these herbs are dried before using. Use roughly one tablespoon of dried material per cup of water. To dry herbs, I have a number of large clay pot saucers. After harvesting and washing, I put the leaves or flowers in the saucers, out of direct sunlight, to dry. A thin layer of rose petals will dry in 24 hours.
Once dry, I store herbs in jars or plastic bags, labeled with what and when harvested. For safety, discard unused dried herbs after one year. This includes the old tin of store-bought sage in the back of your spice rack.
Desert lavender (Hyptis emoryi), grows into a six-foot-tall silver-leaved shrub, crowned in summer monsoon season with spikes of delicate lavender flowers. All parts of the plant have some of the same oils which make European lavenders so popular. If you have never had lavender tea, I assure you it is delightfully refreshing if not made too strong. I like to blend dried desert lavender leaves and flowers with dried rose petals. About one quarter cup of each herb in a half gallon of water. I sweeten with two tablespoons of honey, and stay hydrated sipping at this combination all day long.
Ephedra (Ephedra sp.), also called Mormon tea, is a distinctive olive-green native shrub with a long history of human use. Ephedrine, one of the active compounds, can be more stimulating than caffeine. Scientific studies indicate that moderate use is not harmful, as long as the tea is made from dried stems. About a tablespoon of crumpled stalks per cup. If you have ever tried Celestial Seasonings "Morning Thunder Tea," you have had this plant as tea.
Desert willow (Chilopsis liniaris) produces mildly sweet and tangy blooms. Dry these and drop a few in with any other tea for a pretty floating flower. Do not use the leaves.
Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) blooms are another edible flower that make a delightful tangy tea, or add a lovely reddish tint to other herbal teas. I cannot bear to deprive the hummingbirds of their food source, so I harvest ocotillo blooms by spreading a sheet below the ocotillo and shaking spent blooms off the plant. I then empty the sheet into a paper bag. You can leave the sheet spread under the ocotillo and harvest daily.
Virtually every home in the Old Pueblo has at least one autumn sage (Salvia greggii). This is another landscape plant that is a good source of flowers for tea. The tea tastes ever so faintly sagey. I like to add lemon verbena leaves to make it a more full-bodied tea.
Low-water landscape plants that also provide products for the pantry. What is not to like?
Jacqueline has been writing about gardening in the Southwest for close to three decades. She is currently working on a book on growing and using the herbs of Father Kino's Mission Gardens.