Psst, here is a "not so secret": many "herbal" tea bags contain artificial flavours to give them extra colour and zap. This is because many traditional herbal teas don't have enough body and sweetness to appeal to modern tastes, especially using the conventional "add boiling water, wait a few minutes and drink" technique.
Rose hips from your garden can be used to make rose hip tea, for example, but the hips need to be brewed for far longer than the traditional "cuppa" to extract their flavour. You may not get the rich red colour you expect, either.
Check the label. Most "rose hip" tea bags have hibiscus flowers and/or artificial flavours and colours added to them. (Query: How can a flavour be artificial? It's either a flavour or not. Possibly "artificial" is a euphemism for "a chemical substance unrelated to vegetation that you wouldn't want to drink if you knew where it had come from".)
Avoiding daily doses of artificial flavours is an excellent reason to learn how to grow and mix your own herbals. You'll also discover that truly fresh ingredients taste best, whether they're tomatoes or peppermint.
Some herbs have a strong enough flavour to stand on their own, like peppermint, lemon grass and lemon verbena. Pick the leaves of all three now and dry them before your plants go dormant over winter. Chamomile flowers give a robust, sweet and floral cuppa, as long as the dried blooms aren't stored for more than six months. If you dislike chamomile tea you may only have tasted a potion made from an elderly teabag - a bit like the flavour of sock with a hint of talcum powder.
Most herbal teas though need to be made from a mixture of ingredients to taste really good. Almost all need more than a few minutes dunked in boiling water. You also need to know when to pick the ingredients.
Rose hips are sweetest after a few frosts have deepened their colour. Interestingly, the biggest and reddest hips aren't always the best flavoured. Small tough orange briar hips make an excellent tea, as do the insignificant looking hips of many of the modern hybrid teas, which can be even better than those from the rugosa roses grown for their spectacular giant red hips in winter.
Pick your rose hips; dry them till shrivelled, and then keep in a sealed container till needed. Now chop finely or shred them in the blender, add water and simmer for half an hour or so, then strain well - rose hip fibres feel horrible on the tongue. It's easiest to make up a big batch then keep the remnant in the fridge for up to a week. Reheat as wanted, or freeze rose hip ice blocks for later use.
Rose petals are often added to rose hips and other teas for colour and fragrance. Fresh rose petals lose their scent if soaked in water. Instead dry fragrant petals out of the sun, keep them in a sealed container and then cover with boiling water and leave for 10 minutes, and suddenly there's a sweetness and faint perfume too, though not enough piquancy to really enjoy on its own. The best rose petals I've tried have been deep red Papa Meiland or Mr Lincoln, both of which give a rich pink tea, but other fragrances will give other excellent flavours. Rose petals are good mixed with rose hips, and especially good added to fruit teas. Try a base of rose petal tea with slices of fresh lemon, lime or orange.
Dried strawberries, surprisingly, give an excellent sweetness to herbal tea, a bit too saccharine by themselves but delicious in a mix. Chop and dry the berries in the sun. Don't try to reconstitute them to eat- there are no packets of "dried strawberries" in the supermarket for a good reason. Again, store in a sealed place.
Once upon a time small strawberries were said to have the best flavour, especially wild European woodland ones, but the new, massive Japanese varieties are extra sweet as well as vast. Autumn-winter is the traditional time to plant strawberry runners, ie now.
Pomegranate petals have become increasingly popular in herbal tea mixes. I can't say our fresh ones add much flavour or colour, but by all means bung them in the mix if you like. I prefer to leave the flowers on the tree and eat the fruit. A touch of pomegranate juice, on the other hand, from the fruit you may have hanging on your backyard tree now if the birds haven't discovered it, is wonderful added to a hot drink, both sweet and tart at the same time.
Fragrant violets were once used liberally in cooking and well as for flavouring drinks. Parma violets are possibly the most famous and strongly scented, with pale purple and white varieties available in Australia. Sadly parma violets can be tricky to grow. They don't like spots that are too cold, too hot, too dry, too sunny, or even too shady. A semi shaded corner of a courtyard under a deciduous tree is perfect. Viola odorata is more forgiving, though not quite a spectacular in looks or scent. There is lovely pink form, as many shades of "violet".
Violet flowers dry beautifully, keeping their scent and adding a definite sweetness. They also add colour, though not the blue, pink or purple you might expect, but a bright green, which can be slightly disconcerting. Violets will grow in any moist spot on the garden without too much direct sunlight and a daily application of heavy feet.
Once violets have spread it's hard to get rid of them - no matter how often you haul them out there'll be a skerrick left to regrow. I've found however that in our garden only the scentless ones spread, though that may be because the wallabies here regard any scented variety as a delicacy.
Spicy scented clove pinks or dianthus flowers make an excellent flavouring, used fresh or dried for up to a year. Plant them now through winter, then watch them bloom gloriously in spring. Dianthus are classic rock garden ground covers, with green blue foliage which is attractive even when there are no blooms. Check that the variety you're buying is fragrant - some have been bred for larger flowers and patterned petals, not perfume.
Dried apple is another herbal tea favourite. Apples are easily dried, if you happen to have a surplus. Thinly slice; dip each slice in lemon juice, then thread the slices on a string like a necklace and hang in a dry place out of the dew or rain. Chopped dried apple gives the best flavour if brewed for at least 10 minutes, then reheated.
It's also worth keeping some strongly flavoured "tea" ingredients in the cupboard as well as the garden to add extra oomph, like vanilla pods, allspice or cinnamon bark (to be grown only in frost free warm areas or a heated glasshouse), cardamon, caraway seed, or whole nutmegs to be grated as required.
A touch of grated fresh ginger lifts the flavour quotient of any tea. Our climate's summers are too short for good crops of ginger root, but native ginger grows extremely well here. The roots are wonderfully gingery, but also thin and stringy - not good for a stir fry, but excellent in a herbal tea.
Once you have your herbal store you can, of course, go "adults only" , and brew mulled wine instead of water. Good wine needs only the smallest spicing, a little cinnamon bark or allspice, perhaps, with sliced apples and sliced oranges. Not-so-good wine needs sugar or honey and whatever else you can bung in. Use discretion, which is another way of saying "taste often", and remember that citrus peel will become more bitter a the brew mulls, and spices will become stronger.
I've also become a fan of mulled apple juice, especially drunk around a bonfire. Find local apple juice if you can, pressed directly from apples and not reconstituted from concentrate. Cinnamon, allspice, a touch of nutmeg, possibly a sliced orange or lime, a few violets or dried rose petals, are all good with apple juice, added with moderation and brewed gently, then sipped as you watch the flames. Dianthus flowers also go beautifully with mulled apple juice, but sadly they bloom slightly after the toasting toes by the fire season.
This all probably sounds like a lot of work. It is a lot of work. It's also fun, fragrant, and the results are totally delicious, as well as a shock to anyone who has only tasted "herbal" from a tea bag.
This week I am:
- Admiring the lemonade tree that has just been planted by two very young men just outside my kitchen door;
- Glorying in the best camellia season I've known, as if every bush has saved its blooms for five years to make this winter stunning;
- Discovering that if you leave native finger limes to ripen long enough they turn bright gold, just as Tahitian limes exposed to cooler weather turn softer, juicer and yellow instead of green;
- Picking the first - and possibly last - chokos of autumn. The Canberra region's usual warm blue sky autumn seems to have transmogrified into a holiday in the Antarctic;
- Trying to work out where to plant two more date palms now that those planted with extreme optimism 15 years ago are fruiting. If only one could stretch a garden in the middle, like bread dough;
- About to dig up the Jerusalem artichokes.