A Joyful Cup

With our non-stop, busy lives, it’s hard to find a quiet moment to relax and recharge. But even the practice of pouring a cup of tea can bring peace of mind – especially with the right herbs. Whether you take your tea at high noon or prefer a bedtime brew, these garden herbs provide the perfect mood-boosting cuppa.

Making and sipping a cup of tea is one of the easiest and most enjoyable self-care rituals. In fact, studies show that simply holding a warm cup {regardless of its contents} makes people friendlier and perceive the world in a more optimistic light. Add to that cup some relaxing and restorative teas, and the effects become even more powerful. As many gardeners will attest, stepping out into one’s very own backyard to harvest herbs for that cup of tea furthers a connection with nature, and you discover how deeply enjoyable plant empowerment can be. Looking for a tasty tea featuring herbs you can grow easily in your yard to soothe frayed nerves, help you sleep, or improve your energy? Here are some of my absolute favorites.

Holy Basil {Ocimmum tennuiflorum, syn. O. sanctum}

Also called tulsi, holy basil fits almost any niche you might need for your nervous-adrenal system. Aromatic and delicious with heady notes of clove, mint, and bubblegum, holy basil lends itself fresh or dry to hot and cold water. It quickly calms but gently energizes, with effects that improve if you sip it regularly. As a stress-busting adaptogen, tulsi helps modulate the stress hormone cortisol, which also helps lower and balance blood sugar. The aromatics improve focus, lift the spirits, and ease anxiety. It blends well with other herbs too: peppermint for a perk, lemon balm for relaxation after dinner, rose to nourish the heart and spirit, and green tea for energy and stable blood sugar with a meal. Grow it as you would culinary basil: primarily as an annual in good soil with regular moisture, good drainage, and full sun. An Indian herb, it thrives in hot weather and tolerates containers. Harvest regularly, pinching back and using those prolific flowering stalks. Various species and varieties can be used interchangeably. The Kapoor/temperate {and often unnamed} variety grows most vigorously; new evidence suggests that it’s actually a variety of O. africanum, but most seed sellers still label it as O. sanctum. Homegrown or direct-from-the-farm dried tulsi is vastly superior to what is commonly sold in stores.

Lemon Balm {Melissa officinalis}

This is one of the most popular medicinal herbs cultivated in the garden – and for good reason: the perennial grows prolifically and has many uses, and it’s one of the most-revered nervine herbs to nourish and support the nervous system. It quickly eases anxiety and calms frayed nerves, agitation, hyperactivity, anger, and hypervigilance, yet it doesn’t over-sedate during the daytime and also uplifts the spirits, gladdens the heart, and improves focus. Studies have found it useful for memory, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder {ADHD}, and cognitive decline in children to seniors. Fresh or dry, hot or cold, lemon balm’s nice on its own, but tastes better and is more effective in combination with other herbs: holy basil for a calm-alert sate, mint for a pick-me-up, lemongrass or lemon verbena for lemony flavor, skullcap, and passionflower for sleep.

For tea: Dry lemon balm carefully – in a single layer or hanging with good airflow and not too much heat. It loses its lemon flavor pretty quickly once dried. Commercial dried lemon balm pales in comparison to home-grown or direct-from-the-farm.

Ashwagandha {Withania somnifera}

Compared to the other herbs mentioned in this article, ashwagandha takes a bit more time to grow and yields a smaller harvest because we use the roots. Taken daily, the adaptogen promotes deep energy and the strength, vitality {and yes, libido} of a stallion. It gently boosts thyroid function and also acts as a nervine. Some find it helps sleep. Simmer it with chai spices for tea or add the powder to hot milk with honey and nutmeg.

This Ayurvedic Indian herb prefers hot, sunny, somewhat dry spots with minimal competition from other plants. The size it reaches is a good indicator of how big the root harvest will be. Dig the roots in fall of the first year in cooler climates {it won’t survive winter} or wait until the second autumn in warmer zones 8 and up.

For tea: Scrub the roots clean in cold water, chop with clippers, and dry them in a single layer in a warmish spot with good ventilation or a dehydrator. It stinks as it’s drying, but the odor mellows with time. Once it’s dry, you can powder it by grinding it in a bullet blender and sifting through a fine-mesh strainer. Use caution if you have a hyperthyroid disease or are sensitive to nightshade family plants like potatoes and tomatoes.

Gotu Kola {Centella asiatica}

This plant hails from India and Sri Lanka, where it thrives in hot, soggy, rich soil in dappled sun. You can plant it as an annual or keep it in a pot to winter indoors, being mindful to water regularly. Gotu kola offers subtle yet profound benefits that accumulate when taken routinely for months at a time, particularly in high doses {up to an ounce per day}. It has gentle stress-relieving adaptogen properties, eases anxiety and jumpy nerves, but is most popular for its cognition-boosting and nerve-restoring effects. Rumor has it that the elephant’s diet of Gotu kola is why the animal has such a great memory! You can cook it as a leafy green, eat it fresh, or juice it. which is popular in its native lands.

For tea: While the flavor isn’t amazing, it’s bland enough to add to more palatable herbs like mint, holy basil, and lemon balm or broths cooked with garlic and onions. Use the leaves and all aerial parts.

Rose {Rosa spp.}

The petals add a splash of color to tea blends to lift the spirits and encourage us to be kinder to ourselves. The aromatics of these petals extract well in cold water or seltzer {let a full fresh blossom or two steep for several hours}. I infuse them in a glass bottle so I can “stop and see and sip the roses” when I’m busy, stressed, and overworked. Any rose that smells and tastes good and isn’t sprayed with chemicals will do – typically these include wild and heirloom species such as the moderately invasive seaside {R. rugosa} as well as Damask {R. damascena}, apothecary {R. gallica var. officinalis}, and cabbage {R. centifolia} rose. You can forage invasive multiflora rose {R. muliflora}, but do not plant it.

For tea: Harvest buds, full blossoms, and fresh petals, preferably early in the day before the heat has cooked out the aroma. Dry buds and petals for tea in a single layer with minimal heat.

Skullcap {Scutellaria lateriflora}

This wild plant of the woodland water’s edge {growing among wild mint and bugleweed} prefers slightly damp, rich-to-sandy soil in partial to full sun. It can be a bit persnickety in the garden with good and bad years. When it thrives, harvest in abundance because it’s so useful, and good-quality skullcap is rare on the market. Skullcap has relaxing nervine properties well-suited for people who feel edgy, anxious, or hyperactive, as if their nervous system is in overdrive – when scents, sounds, and even touch make everything worse. When the sound of your bed partner’s breathing keeps you from sleeping and oncoming headlights make your migraine feel like someone’s stabbing you through the eyes – there’s skullcap. Combined with more sedative herbs like passionflower, it helps lull you to sleep. Paired with the gentle energizing and focus effects of holy basil or lemon balm, it makes a lovely tea in daytime blends for anxiety. Occasionally {but rarely}, regular use can aggravate depression or prove too sedating for daytime use.

For tea: Harvest once aerial parts are in bloom and dry carefully to avoid blackening, placing them in a thin layer or hanging in a place with good airflow and not too much moisture or heat {ideally in the dehydrator at 95-100 degrees F or so}.

Passionflower {Passiflora incarnata}

Coming from the Southeast, where the sprawling vine can be a bit of a pest, passionflower produces stunning, otherworldly flowers, inspiring missionaries to name it after the Passion of Christ. Passionflower’s aerial parts cool, calm, and sedate, and it’s one of our safest and most effective sleep eas {much more pleasant tasting than valerian and hops!}, easily enhanced with some spearmint, lemongrass, holy basil, or other flavorful herbs.

Also, consider a little passionflower solo or in blends for anxiety, anger, frustration, agitation, and stress-induced hypertension – just be aware that some people find it too sedating for daytime use. You can cultivate passionflower in a warm full- to part-sun spot with decent moisture and good soil, allowing it to amble along a fence, arbor, or trellis. It does well in pots and greenhouses too and can overwinter indoors in cooler climates. As a perennial, zone 6 is the edge of its winter-hardy range.

For tea: Simply prune back vines with happy-looking, vibrant growth, ideally in flower. Use the entire vine – stem, leaves, and flowers. Dry on low heat in a dehydrator to ensure thorough drying of the flower middles or use fresh in other recipes like tinctures.

Flavor With Purpose

Alongside your “relax and revive” teas, consider planting tried-and-true flavorful herbs. Though they’re not as specific for the nervous system, they do impact your mood and the medicinal activity of your blends, and they’ll also make them more delicious.

Mint {Mentha spp.} has probably already tucked itself into some corner of your garden – or threatened to take it over with its ambitious root runners. Perhaps no other herb is as useful for delicious tea blends, hot or cold. Peppermint {M. x piperita} and chocolate mint {a peppermint variety} provide perky and alert properties backed by science. Spearmint {M. spicata} more gently supports cognition and focus and makes a nice flavoring agent for sleep blends as well. Use apple mint {M. suaveolens} much like spearmint, and feel free to play around with other mints, such as pineapple mint {which is quite tasty but may not survive cold winter climates} and banana mint. Bear in mind it spreads and can also interbreed into bland miny hybrids. Consider slowing it down by planting it in big pots or out-of-the-way spots, keeping different species a bit spaced apart.

Rosemary {Rosmarinus officinalis}, like peppermint, offers perky-alert properties but also has a bit of a bitter, piney, resinous edge that adds complexity to tea blends. It’s fine dried but tastes better fresh.

Lemon verbena {Aloysia citrodora} and Lemongrass {Cymbopogon citratus} taste vastly better than lemon balm, adding a pleasant lemon flavor to tea blends that lift and calms the spirits. Lemon verbena resembles lemon cake {especially if combined with vanilla bean or extract and steeped in not-quite-boiling water}, whereas you may recognize lemongrass’s tropical flavor from Thai soups and curry. Of all the lemony herbs, lemongrass holds its flavor the longest but will still lose quite a bit after a year. For tea, dry the grassy tops and then cut them into small pieces with sharp scissors. Freeze the tightly rolled bottom stalks for cooking, cordials, seltzer, and broth. I prefer to keep dried lemon verbena leaves whole to hold their flavor longer, adding a few to my teapot, water bottle, or mug. Both are nice with lemon balm, sleep blends, green tea, or vanilla. Grow these tropical herbs in a pampered garden bed or large pot with full sun, warmth, good soil, and regular water. They don’t like to be crowded by other plants. Be aware that lemongrass can give you a nasty paper cut.

Korean licorice mint {Agastache rugosa} and Anise hyssop {A. foeniculum} grow into beautiful purple flower spikes that self-seed all over the garden, and they’re so yummy, pretty, and easy enough to pull up or move around that you won’t mind. The two are nearly indistinguishable, with a flower profile ranging from honey-fennel to fennel-mint. Medicinally, this mint-family herb soothes the throat and tummy and has gentle nervine, calming activity. It tastes delicious with almost any other green, leafy herb. It will grow in part shade to full sun, good soil and moderate moisture are most important for big, happy plants. The short-lived perennial will die off after a few years, but by then the babies will be ready to take off.

Harvesting, Drying and Storing Herbs

Harvest leaves {with or without flowers} when the plant looks, smells, and tastes its best, usually just before or after it begins flowering. Cut the top one-third to two-thirds of the plant, making sure to leave at least a few sets of leaves behind. They’re best trimmed right above a leaf node, but you can also grab a bunch of plant material together and give it a “bad haircut.” Keep them on the stem for drying. You can cut lemongrass’s grassy tops for tea this way or if you want to also harvest the thick stalks for other recipes, cut up to one-third of the plant right at the base.

Dry your herbs in a thin or single layer with good airflow until they’re crispy dry. You can use a dehydrator {set to 95-110 degree F for best results}, but good dehydrators are expensive and fill up quickly. Alternately, air-dry in bundles or on hanging screens {I love mt iPomelo hanging herb-drying rack}, but humidity may prevent your herbs from getting totally dry. You can also loosely pack a brown paper bag with herbs, cinch shut with a clothespin, and leave it inside the car windshield on a warm, sunny day {if it’s really hot, place it in a shady spot, a clean trunk, and/or crack the windows}. Sensitive herbs like basil, lemon balm, and skullcap may blacken and degrade via the brown bag method due to the heat and reduced airflow; use a dehydrator instead or air-dry and then crisp in the car if needed when the herb is mostly dry.

Once your herbs are totally crisp-dry {no bendy stems}, you can move the leaves from the stems by stripping with your hands or rubbing over a screen. Store in a clean, air-tight glass jar in a cool, dark, dry spot like a cabinet or pantry.

Tea Blends To Try

  • Sleep Tea: 1/2 teaspoon each passionflower, skullcap, lemon balm, and spearmint steeped in hot water for 15 minutes in a 4- to a 6-ounce teacup and sweetened with honey.
  • Perky Alert Blend: 1/2 teaspoon each peppermint, spearmint, lemon balm, and Gotu kola plus a sprig of fresh rosemary steeped in 16 ounces of hot water for 15 minutes.
  • Happy Day Infused Water: A few sprigs of fresh holy basil and one or two rose blossoms in a glass bottle of cold water, steeped for 2 or more hours {holy basil and rose also blend well hot and/or dry}.
  • Ashwagandha Golden Milk: Simmer 1 teaspoon ashwagandha roots in 16 ounces of hot whole milk, oat milk, or almond milk with 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder and a pinch each of nutmeg and cardamom for 15 minutes. Strain and add honey or maple syrup to taste.
  • Ashwagandha Chai: Simmer 1 teaspoon ashwagandha with 2 cinnamon sticks, 2 cardamom pods, 1-star anise, and 5 cloves for 20 minutes. Strain and add milk/cream and sweetener if desired.
  • Happy Holy Lemon Tea: Combine equal parts lemon balm and holy basil fresh or dry in hot or cold water and let steep for 15 minutes. Exact quantities do not matter; it comes out nicely no matter what.
  • Good Morning, Tulsi: 1/2 teaspoon each holy basil and green tea {preferably jasmine green}, with a few optional lemon verbena leaves, steeped in 12 ounces of near-boiling water for 4 minutes.

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