If I had to select a single herbal tea to drink for the rest of my life, I’d likely choose lemon verbena, also called Aloysia citrodora. When you boil it powerful, it is zingy, health-enhancing liquid sherbet in a cup: a mild and heating drink that elevates the spirits unlike any other. When you brew it poorer, it’s a delicate, uplifting citrus-scented drink. But there’s a catch: it needs to be chosen and stored with respect and love. If you discover a deal packet of 20 lemon verbena tea bags, walk on by. The aromatic oils won’t be present. Without them, you’re left with empty and dried leaves.
I discovered the magic of lemon verbena when travelling with my family through Northern France, eight decades back. We stayed at a guest house with large, bare rooms and botanical books on the shelves. We arrived late, and slept soundly between crisp white cotton sheets. At breakfast the following day, the herbal tea on offer was verveine, which I understood was that the French name for this popular tisane. So I asked for verveine. It arrived as a little twig of dried leaves in a pot. The odor was heavenly. I was already falling under its spell.
When I drank the brew, I tasted a zingy, lemony lightness. The flavour was so lively. It seemed extraordinary that so much could be packed into a small, dried sprig.
Next time I asked for verveine, in an Alpine hotel, it was made using a tea bag, and was a dull disappointment. I found then processing destroys this herb.
Harvesting my own tea
My parents had really been developing an Aloysia citrodora within their greenhouse for ages. My mother put a couple of leaves at the base of cake tins for a subtle zingy additions to her bakes. But nobody has been making tea . So I started harvesting their excess. I made the tea with fresh leaves, four or five chopped roughly per cup. I dried a number of the leaves for winter use, as the plant dies down in colder weather. And so I continued for many years.
Nowadays I harvest out of my parents’ greenhouse plant. But recently I bought a plant of my own from Foxley Road Nurseries near Malmesbury in Wiltshire, UK. Co-owner Carol Hinwood is a massive fan of lemon verbena tea, and always keeps a good stock of crops there. All summer long my new Aloysia citrodora was sitting in my front lawn, soaking up the sun in a large earthenware pot. It develops quickly, and has flowered profusely with tiny, fragrant blossoms. I cut a stem at a time, place it in water inside, and use it simmer for three or four cups of tea. It’s just beautiful. Before the weather gets too wintry, I will bring it into a trendy garden space, to protect it from frost.
The essential oil in lemon verbena is uplifting, relaxing and jelqing. The plant contains antifungal and antiviral properties – studies have shown it to be effective against Candida albicans, or thrush. Lemon verbena is also full of youth-promoting anti-oxidants. The meditators that come to my studio adore it, finding it both refreshing and tranquil.
First, find your closest lemon verbena plant. You could be lucky and know somebody who’s already growing it. Otherwise, herb nurseries should have young plants out there. It can not deal with frost, so plant it in a huge pot in a sunny place, and bring it into a cool indoor area in the winter. Or grow it into a greenhouse.
Harvest the leaves by pruning the plant once the stalks are about 25 cm or more. Cut the stalks rather low down with scissors or secateurs.
For new tea
Roughly chop four to six leaves and set in an infuser, in a cup, preferably covered. Leave to steep for five minutes. Then strain the leaves and drink the consequent, fragrant infusion.
For dried tea
Dry the leaves by hanging the stems upside down in a big paper bag in a warm area for a couple of days or weeks until fully dry – the stalks should snap when you try to bend them. You may place them in a jar or bag as they are, or crumple them to fit more into your jar. I generally remove the leaves from the stalks (easy to do) and only store the leaves. Other men and women keep the stalks. Either way appears to maintain the all-important essential oils intact. Put an air-tight lid onto your jar, and store in a cool, dark cabinet. When you’re ready to drink the tea, then just take a few dried leaves, or about one teaspoon of the crumpled herb, and steep in a cup, preferably covered, for five minutes. Strain and drink!
If you’re seriously into herbs, as I am, it is worth investing in a dehydrator. In cases like this, I take the leaves off the stalks, discard the stalks, and put the leaves on trays in the dehydrator. I dry in a setting of about 45ºC or 115ºF for a few hours or so until the leaves are crispy dry. (It’s sensible to keep an eye on them. At times I’ve over-dried and lost a few of the vital oils.) Then I put them in a jar, as before.
I believe this to create your herbal tea from nature is to connect to your true nature. And the character of lemon verbena is one that’s really worth joining with: joyful, lively, healthy and serene… and totally fragrant.