One thing I never tuck into my food pack is tea. I mean, really, there’s such a wide variety of plants in nature’s pantry that can be steeped into satisfying herbal teas (or tisanes, as they were known in the Old World) it just seems silly to tote imported tea into camp. And, unlike cultivated teas, wild ones are caffeine free, and the bonus deal is they’re free for the picking. As grandma used to say, “They’re good for treating whatever ails you.”
Wild plants have been used for thousands of years by herbalists like my grandmother as medicinals for treating all kinds of everyday ailments, such as cold and flu, sore throat, upset stomach, indigestion, diarrhea and, on the other side of the hill, constipation, to name a few common complaints that are bound to strike when you’re camped miles away from the nearest medicine cabinet, so they’re a handy pick for any outdoor enthusiast.
Foraging wild plants for the teapot is a rewarding hobby that pairs up perfectly with fishing, hunting, hiking or other invigorating activities that work up a big thirst. Having a cup of handpicked tea by the evening campfire is my favourite way to toast a great day spent in the woods or on the water.
Of course, wild teas can be enjoyed at home, too, so why not round up the family, arm them with baskets and go on a fun “tea-picking” adventure. Just be sure to only gather plants you can safely identity and steer clear of roadways and other areas where dust, herbicides and pesticides may be present. Since the plants below can be used fresh or dried for tea-making, it’s easy to gather extra bounty to put up for winter use.
Berries can be dried in a food dehydrator; spread on baking sheets and sat in a warm place such as a sunroom or attic; or even dried in the oven (at lowest temperature with door slightly ajar so steam can escape) until moisture is gone.
Spread flowers, buds, blossoms and short leaves (like strawberry and blueberry) on sheets and leave in a warm place until crispy. Lanky stemmed plants such as raspberry, nettle and fireweed can be tied into bundles with string and hung from cup hooks on the ceiling until crispy. Once dried, hold them upside down inside a paper bag and strip the leaves off by hand, crush the leaves and discard the stalks.
My favourite way to dry rose hips is to string and hang them. Using a needle and thread or fishing line, lace up the hips into long chains and hang from the ceiling until moisture is gone. Kids love this job so let them string up enough rose hips to help ward off colds and flu all winter long. When dried, unstring and store in a tea tin.
Below are a few common plants that are easy for beginner foragers to break ground with.
Strawberry, Raspberry, Blueberry, Blackberry
These bountiful wild berries make memorable teas, and my rule of thumb is the more berries you put in the pot, the sweeter and more flavourful the brew will be. And after the tea is drunk, I always spoon up the dregs and eat them for good measure.
Berry leaves are reputed as being good treatment for upset stomach, indigestion, heartburn, diarrhea and for soothing a sore, raspy throat. Cold berry teas make a cooling wash for sunburned skin and a cleansing soak for cuts and wounds while prompting healing. The brews are a powerful antioxidant and, according to grandma, “They do the body a world of good.”
Clover grows in abundance in grassy meadowlands and pastures and the fragrant blossoms make excellent tea, especially when sweetened with honey. Old World herbalists made a clover infusion which was administered for treating whooping cough and bronchitis. Grandma claimed it was good for calming the nerves and inducing sleep. Some clover tea lovers prefer red and purple clover over white, but I enjoy them all.
Lanky, purple-headed fireweed grows in abundance in old logged-out and fire-swept areas. The leaves and flowers make a tea that is very similar to expensive imported green tea. Fireweed is said to relieve pain and swelling in joints and, according to grandma’s writings, the cold tea helps to break a fever. Fireweed tea can be used to treat the same upsets as berry teas.
Just touch it and the sting will confirm you have the right plant. Wear gloves to protect your hands when picking stinging nettles, but don’t fret because once steeped the nettles lose their sting. Nettle tea is similar to matcha in flavour, and it’s loaded with nutrients and has many health benefits. It is praised as reducing inflammation of the joints, alleviating arthritis and rheumatism pain, helping to ward off hay fever and being a good cure for insomnia.
There’s nothing more romantic than a cup of faintly scented wild rose tea made from buds and petals. The leaves produce a more potent tea, similar to fireweed, and the fleshy hips (fruit of the wild rose) are loaded with nutrients and rich in vitamin C, making them a number one preventative medicine for cold and flu. Since the fleshy hips cling to the bare branches all winter long, they are ranked as being nature’s top survival food.
For pleasure drinking, the hips can be simmered whole. Strain the tea and discard the hips. If preparing the hips for survival food, break them in half and thumb out the seeds, which have tiny hairs that can irritate the mouth. Save the seeds and grind them with a stone into a nourishing flour which renders the hairs harmless. Use the flour to make a gruel, drink the wholesome tea and eat the cooked hips for nutrition.
Yes, you can even forage a cup of bush tea in the midst of winter. Pine, spruce, balsam branchlets, needles and tips make a tea that is a rich source of vitamin C, good for warding off colds and flu. Rub the branchlets in your hands to help release the oils before putting a small handful into the teapot and covering with boiling water. You can add a pinch of resin from the tree for good measure, especially balsam gum if brewing the tea for cold treatment. Bright green tender fir tips make a fine cup of tea that grandma claimed was a powerful spring tonic for flushing impurities from the system.
Measures For Making Wild Teas
My measuring motto is the more berries, flowers or leaves you put into the teapot, the stronger the flavour will be; and the longer it steeps, the more potent it will become. Thus, my advice is to start out with smaller measures and adjust from there. If you find the tea is too weak to suit your taste, use a little more plant next time around. If the tea is too strong for your liking, simply add more boiling water and reduce the measure for the next pot. After a few tweaks, you will have the perfect cup of bush tea for quenching your thirst and curing our trail ails.
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