As an avid tea drinker and wild blueberry picker, I took longer than you might expect to discover the world of wild herbal tea. First I made a conscious decision to drink only loose-leaf tea as a way to reduce kitchen waste (goodbye, teabags). Then a shadowy childhood memory of drinking raspberry leaf tea led me to realize my back yard's potential for free, delicious, locally sourced herbal tea. On my way to harvest leaves from my raspberry patch one summer evening, I noticed a thick clump of wild mint, rosebushes with rose hips hung like crimson jewels, and a grove of cedar trees. For years I'd barely noticed these plants. All I needed was a teacup and hot water to unleash the plethora of flavors and healthful properties these plants contained.
Herbs to Try
The following native plants show the diversity of flavors that Minnesota serves up to wild tea foragers. While these plants aren't all found statewide, no matter what part of the state you live in, you should be able to find at least one of these herbs nearby. Wenzel suggests you become acquainted with just one plant at a time to avoid becoming overwhelmed.
Once you've "met" these wild plants, consider branching out into wintergreen leaves, elderberry flowers, winterberry, and balsam needles. Foraging for tea will give you one more reason to get outdoors. And perhaps you'll discover new herbal blends to make your own brand of wild tea.
We might think of tea as an exotic beverage, imported from faraway lands such as China and India, where the tea plant (Camellia sinensis) grows. Technically, tea can be made only with leaves from this plant. However, many people have become accustomed to calling herbal infusions "tea" too.
Chances are, you're not far from a plant that you could harvest to brew a cup of wild herbal tea. To discover the utility and tastiness of Minnesota's native plant community, you need three basic things: a walk in forest or field, a good edible plants field guide, and a sense of adventure.
"Collecting for teas is a fun way to blend simple knowledge of plants' botanical characteristics and what you could view as traditional medicinal or edible uses," says Brandee Wenzel, a Superior National Forest wilderness ranger and plant specialist.
When you collect wild plant parts and brew them into a tea, you're joining the ranks of people throughout history. For centuries, American Indians used herbal teas to cure headaches, sore joints, and other ailments. After dumping their imported tea into the Boston Harbor during the Revolutionary War, colonists turned to local herbal teas.
Before You Harvest.
Consult a field guide before harvesting, keeping in mind any food or medicine sensitivities you have. For example, wintergreen contains a compound related to aspirin, so people who are sensitive to aspirin might have a bad reaction to wintergreen tea, says Minnesota wild edibles author Teresa Marrone. If you are taking prescription medication, consult your doctor before consuming wild herbs.
People often feel apprehensive about harvesting wild plants, says herbalist Eric Ament, who gathers wild herbs and creates his own tea blends for his Duluth-based Anahata Herbals. Wild herbs aren't as intimidating as wild mushrooms, but many people still worry about poisoning themselves by eating "the wrong thing." Although Minnesota plants tend to have few poisonous or disagreeable traits, Ament recommends harvesting a plant only if you can positively identify it by at least three distinct characteristics, such as smell, height, leaf or flower shape, and habitat.
Before gathering a quantity of the herb to dry and store, try a cup of tea made with the fresh herb to see if you like it. Just place a teaspoon of the herb in 8 ounces of hot water and brew for three minutes.
Where to Gather.
If you want to gather plants on private lands, always ask permission from the landowner. Foraging for wild edibles for personal use is permissible on many public lands, such as national and state forests, but since rules vary, always check with the land manager. Gathering plants isn't allowed in state scientific and natural areas. Collecting plant material other than edible fruit is prohibited in state parks and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Do not gather your herbs near roadsides, sewage areas, or other places that might have contaminated plants, says Wenzel.
Disturb the habitat as little as possible when gathering herbs, being especially careful when foraging in boggy areas to protect delicate plant life.
Harvest only what you can use. Tea has a shelf life of one to two years, but it tastes better the sooner you consume it.
When harvesting from a plant, limit how many leaves or stems you take to avoid harming the plant and its community, says Chel Anderson, plant ecologist and botanist with the Department of Natural Resources. You want your harvest to have as little impact as possible. Don't always gather your herbs from the same plant or patch. You don't want to create a browse line, says Anderson.
Dry to Store.
To prevent herbs from growing moldy, pick them after the morning dew has dried. Rinse your harvested herbs only if visibly dirty. To dry an herb to enjoy throughout the year, loosely bundle herb sprigs with string and hang them upside down in a well-ventilated place away from sunlight, such as a closet. Or you can dry single leaves or flowers by placing them on a cardboard flat on a closet shelf. Once the herb crumbles easily, it's dry enough to store; this may take several days, depending on humidity levels. Store whole leaves, flowers, or fruit in airtight containers away from sunlight.
Brew Your Tea.
For fresh leaves, use 1 to 3 teaspoons per 8 ounces of water. To prepare tea with dried herbs, crumble 1 teaspoon of herbs into a tea-infusion basket, pour in 8 ounces of just-boiling water, and brew for three to five minutes. Individual taste varies, so experiment with the amount of herbs and water temperature until you get the tea to your liking. Keep in mind that the longer you brew your tea, the more bitterness may develop. For herbal iced tea, use the same process, but increase the amount of herbs used (try doubling at first), then chill before serving.