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Make Herbal Teas from Wild Plants of the Fields and Roadsides

Updated on March 20, 2016
Red clover blossom
Red clover blossom | Source
White-flowered sweet clover
White-flowered sweet clover | Source
Yellow-flowered sweet clover
Yellow-flowered sweet clover | Source
Pineapple weed or wild chamomile
Pineapple weed or wild chamomile | Source
Monarda fistulosa, or wild bee balm, or Oswego tea
Monarda fistulosa, or wild bee balm, or Oswego tea | Source
Green shiso (perilla)
Green shiso (perilla)
Red shiso (perilla)
Red shiso (perilla) | Source

There are many wild field and roadside plants that can be harvested to make delicious and often healthful herbal teas. Here are a few of my favorites:

RED CLOVER

Red clover tea is a pleasant honey-scented herbal tea that is especially nice when made from fresh flowers. This is a nice tea to blend with chamomile or pineapple weed (wild chamomile), since the flavors complement each other, or made with red clover only.

My personal favorite addition to red clover tea is a bit of cardamom—about one teaspoon cardamom per pot. Nutmeg or ginger might also be a pleasant addition, or a selection of the spices used to make chai tea, which might include cinnamon, clove, cardamom, and ginger—or might include just about anything you like, for that matter.

Red clover is a valuable but mild-acting medicinal plant. It is used as an alterative (a substance that gradually restores normal body functions), and is considered a “blood purifier” for helping the body throw of toxins. As an antispasmodic, the tea is considered useful for coughs, and Maude Grieve, in A Modern Herbal, mentions that it is useful for whooping cough.

Red clover tea is relaxing. Jeanne Rose, in Herbs and Things, describes it as sedative. The first time I ever tried red clover tea, I noticed that it seemed to put me to sleep. When I mentioned this to the herbalist at the herb store, she suggested that I back off on the dose: “Maybe you’re de-toxing too fast.” Herbs that rid the body of toxins do sometimes produce lethargy, as poisons are released from the tissues and into the bloodstream to be disposed of through the body’s various excretory organs (kidneys, bowels, lungs, and skin).

What’s happening is that toxins that had been sequestered in the tissues (often in the form of cysts or boils) are making you feel a little ill while they are being purged from the body. People who have tried fasting will be familiar with this phenomenon.

Funny thing, though. In subsequent years of drinking red clover tea, I never again noticed that it made me drowsy.

Red clover is one of the herbs sometimes taken internally for cancer, and red clover poultices have been used externally for cancerous growths. Jeanne Rose suggests using a poultice of red clover for athlete’s foot.

One summer I became addicted to red clover tea. I live in the country, where I’m surrounded by vast fields of red clover, so I would go out every couple of days and fill my basket with the flowers and make a big pot of red clover tea in a teapot stuffed full of the flowers. Then I diluted it by half and kept a two-quart container in the refrigerator at all times, and drank the stuff daily.

After doing this all summer, I noticed that several warts had disappeared. I would say it’s a fine remedy for warts, but my impression is that it takes a LOT.

Gathering Red Clover

Find a field of red clover in bloom and gather the flowers. Don’t worry about removing any small leaves that form a collar around the flower. For peak fragrance, it is usually suggested that all flowers and herbs be gathered in the morning after the dew has dried. While this is nice, if you can work this into your schedule, it is not necessary.

How to Make Red Clover Tea

Herbal infusions (teas) are traditionally made by steeping one ounce of the dried herb in one pint of boiling water. Usually it will take about twice as much of the fresh herb. Red clover flowers are so mild-flavored that I usually stuff the teapot full and add boiling water to cover. Sweetening with honey brings out the clover fragrance.

SWEET CLOVER (Melilotus sp.)

This one grows on you. It has some of the same qualities of traditional green tea or black tea: It’s “leafy” without being overpowering, and the flavor has complexity. The taste is “green” and slightly bitter, with a sweet-coumarin scent that some liken to vanilla. (It’s actually nothing at all like vanilla, but that is the nearest comparison.) In other words, it’s the kind of thing you could drink every day without tiring of it.

This tea is apparently a favorite at Wild Woman Gatherings, and perhaps other gatherings of aficionados of herbs and herb lore.

The coumarin scent goes well with honey and, like many other herbal teas, the temptation to add a hint of “this and that” to it is irresistible. Try adding some fresh orange peel, star anise, or regular anise to the pot, to make this tea something very special indeed.

Don’t let this tea sit around too long—that is, don’t brew a pot and let it sit overnight at room temperature and absent-mindedly drink it in the morning. Even slightly spoiled sweet clover can have unpleasant anti-coagulant effects.

Taken internally, sweet clover is not among the heavy hitters of herbal medicine. It appears that the chief medicinal use of this tea, taken internally, is to relieve flatulence. Poultices of the plant have been used externally for wens, ulcers, and abdominal and rheumatic pains.

Sweet clover is well worth drying for winter use. As Maude Grieve remarks, in A Modern Herbal, “The dried herb has an intensely fragrant odour, but a somewhat pungent and bitterish taste.” Drying intensifies the sweet scent.

Gathering Sweet Clover

Sweet clover blooms seemingly everywhere in fields and along the roadsides in June and July. Sometimes your fist hint that the plant is nearby is the overpoweringly sweet scent, which is why it is called “sweet clover.”

Either the yellow flowered kind, Melilotus officinalis, or the white-flowered kind, Melilotus alba, may be used. No distinction is made between these, either for making teas or for medicinal use. This is the case with many herbs: When you purchase hawthorn berries, for example, they will normally be Crataegus spp.—meaning any of several species, or a combination of more than one species—and there are quite a few of them.

Both the leaves and the flowering tops may be gathered—although there are often few leaves to gather, once the plant is in flower. The best time to gather the flowering tops and leaves is when the plant first comes into flower and is at its peak.

How to Make Sweet Clover Tea

Coarsely chop a double handful of the fresh herb and put it in a teapot and add a pint or two of boiling water. The traditional way of brewing dried herbs is to use one ounce of the dried herb to one pint of boiling water. Preferences may vary, of course.

As mentioned above, sweet clover tea lends itself to additional flavorings of many kinds: Anise, star anise, or orange peel complement the flavor, and there is never anything wrong with lemon and honey.

PINEAPPLE WEED (WILD CHAMOMILE)

Pineapple weed (Matricaria matricariodies) is a wild plant of the same genus as German chamomile (Matricaria recutita). In fragrance, flavor, and medicinal use, it is indistinguishable from German chamomile. The flower looks a bit different—like chamomile without petals, and when dried it has a more greenish color than German chamomile.

According to Wikipedia, “The plant grows well in disturbed areas, especially those with poor, compacted soil.” My first encounter with this plant was when I discovered it growing in the neglected gravel driveway of the house I bought in the country.

This plant loves neglected gravel driveways—but it will flourish even better in good garden soil.

I have an old friend who farms, and she mentioned to me several years ago that she would like to grow chamomile. So I mentioned that she probably had pineapple weed (wild chamomile) growing on her farm. We went looking for it and, sure enough, she had a regular embarrassment of wild-chamomile riches growing all over the farm’s extensive network of run-down gravel driveways. (Working farms always have neglected gravel driveways leading to barns, sheds, hoop-houses, livestock areas, and the road that runs along the “back forty.” There is never enough time or gravel to maintain roads to all the places you need to go on a farm.)

My friend discovered many eager buyers for her “wild chamomile” at the local farmer’s market and has created a niche market for wild chamomile and red clover herbal teas.

Pineapple weed tea is used in exactly the same way as German chamomile: It makes a delicious relaxing tea whose flavor is indistinguishable from German chamomile, and it is equally effective for upset stomachs. Like German chamomile, t is sometimes used to treat fevers.

How to Gather Wild Chamomile

Collecting wild chamomile is a bit tedious, since only the flowers are added to the collecting basket. It is sometimes suggested that the flowers be harvested with a wide-tooth comb, and there are even makers of “chamomile combs” for gathering the flowers.

The flowers may be used fresh or dried.

How to Make Pineapple Weed Tea

You would probably not use the traditional “one ounce of the dried herb, to one pint of boiling water” recipe for this tea. One ounce of chamomile is quite a lot. The chamomile teabags that you purchase at the store for making a cup of tea probably have a teaspoon or less of the dried herb. I would go with something more like two tablespoons of the dried herb per cup (or about three tablespoons of the fresh herb per cup)—which should be sufficient even for medicinal use.

For an upset stomach, make a tea of equal parts pineapple weed (or German chamomile) and mint (any kind). This combination is miraculous!

Like German chamomile, pineapple weed is so flavorful on its own that no other flavoring than honey is required. (Not saying you can’t add orange peel!) And, like German chamomile, pineapple weed is one of the gentle and delicious herbs that I think of as “children’s herbs”—ones that are indicated in almost any of mild illness than affects children. Because that’s what Peter Rabbit’s mother gave Peter Rabbit, after his troubles with Farmer Brown.

MONARDA (BERGAMOT, BEE BALM, OSWEGO TEA)

Bee balm (Mondarda fistulosa) is a common roadside “weed” that is often grown in flower gardens. There are several other species—including cultivars with showier flowers and a more pleasing habit--all of which may be used for herbal teas.

All species have highly fragrant leaves that are also highly antiseptic, and have been used as poultices for wounds, skin infections, and internally for flatulence, vomiting, nausea, headaches, and fevers. It can also be used as a tea to treat mouth and throat infections, the active antiseptic constituent being thymol. Thymol is an ingredient in many commercial mouthwashes.

According to Wikipedia, “Bee balm was traditionally used by Native Americans as a seasoning for wild game, particularly birds.” Cooks everywhere will be familiar with the use of thyme (another herb containing thymol) in poultry stuffing.

While Mondarda fistulosa is the species with the highest content of the fragrant oil, the lavender-flowered Mondarda fistulosa is considered the true wild bergamot, and this is the kind you will most often see growing wild in fields and along roadsides. And there is definitely no need for concern about the concentration of the fragrant oil. The flavor of an herbal tea made from the lavender-flowered roadside Mondarda fistulosa is eye-poppingly powerful! (Care should be taken not to make it too strong.)

This tea is considered a stimulant—and the flavor alone is quite stimulating!

European settlers in North American used Osewego tea as a tea substitute, in protest of the high taxes imposed by the East India Company, following the Boston Tea Party.

My suggestion would be to use only a small handful of the fresh flowers and leaves per pot of tea, and serve with lemon and honey.

WILD PERILLA (SHISO)

Shiso (Perilla frutescens), used in various oriental cuisines, in now an invasive weed throughout much of the easter United States. The plant occurs in both red and green-leafed forms and even the green-leafed kind is easy to recognize by the fragrance of the crushed leaf, which is variously described as cinnamon, basil, anise, mint, fennel, or citrus.

I would have to go with anise.

The green variety is an invasive weed in my yard, and I first noticed it when lawn-mowing released a pervasive licorice scent. For quite a few years, I wondered what it was—though my uncertainty on this point did not keep me from making it into an herbal tea.

Finally, when my middle daughter—the one who has taken up life in self-sufficient agricultural communities—came to visit, she pointed out the plant to me and said, “That’s shiso.”

Red shiso is used in fish stews in china. The Japanese use green shiso leaves raw with sashimi, and also use the leaves to make a tea. In Korea, perilla leaves are pickled with chili powder and soy sauce. In Viet Nam, a distinctly Vietnamese variety is used as a garnish in rice/vermicilli dishes and for stews and simmered dishes.

I can’t venture any guesses as to you luck in turning up any shiso on your wild-food foraging expeditions, but since we are assured that it is an invasive exotic, it’s almost sure to be around somewhere.

I am frankly baffled as to how it happened to invade my lawn, since my tiny rural Midwestern village is more of an outpost of barbequed cuisine and potato salad than of Asian cookery. The only thing I can figure out is that a group of Asian youths must have come out here in pickup trucks, to go “muddin’,” with shiso seeds in their pockets.

If you find shiso, you will probably find a bunch. It loves company. It can be eaten raw in salads, or cooked, or added to soups, stews, fish dishes, and stir-fries.

Or you can use shiso to make an herbal tea. Because of its invasive nature, it reseeds itself throughout the summer, so you are likely to find both young and old plants. (I find a lot of young plants in my flower beds.)

Plants of any age will be suitable for making an herbal tea, and older plants are likely to have a more intense flavor. To make a pot of tea, use about two handfuls of the fresh leaves per pot, and flavor with honey and lemon.

Perilla is used in Chinese herbal medicine for morning sickness, asthma and coughs. There is some evidence that, due to the content of rosmarinic acid, shiso extracts may have anti-allergenic value. There is probably not enough rosmarinic acid in the tea to achieve any anti-allergic effects, however.

On the other hand, this is a tasty and (to my taste) anise-flavored herbal tea—and one that you may enjoy gathering as a food plant, as well!

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