Selecting Plants for Tea and Tea Flavoring
Actual tea of the green and black variety is camellia sinensis. The tender new leaves of this plant are picked for tea.
Drying and Storing Tea Ingredients
Tea and tea flavorings require that we overcome the same obstacles faced in safely preserving nutrients, flavor, texture, and general health benefits of any food. The culprits are oxygen, sunlight, moisture, heat, and unwanted consumers, like insects and mice. Traditional tea, herbal tea, and flavorings must be dried, stored in containers (preferably air tight ones, under a vacuum), and in darkness (away from UV light) to preserve their flavor and nutrients. Note: Always rinse your freshly harvested tea and tea flavoring items with water immediately after harvest (or even before cutting, if it is possible to do so and keep them clean) and before drying, because you will take them directly from your storage container into your cup, teapot, or pitcher and consume. No soap or cleanser should be necessary, because we do not use pesticides or chemicals on our homegrown tea or tea flavoring plants, right? Of course, not! So, just rinse, dry, and enjoy what is grown naturally as God created.
If I am going out to the garden to collect flowers or herbs for flavorings that can be used fresh and I gather just the amount I need for an immediate pot of tea, I can collect, rinse, and use it. However, if I have some extra for later in the day or that I expect to use fresh within the next day or two, I usually keep that in the refrigerator. Some items, such as chamomile flowers, will be rinsed and put inside a folded paper towel to begin the drying process in case I don’t use them all within a few days. In the refrigerator, the leaves and fruit probably only have a few days to a week before they will begin to rot or mold. Roots, like ginger, will hold weeks in the refrigerator, if their cut ends are kept wrapped in plastic. The finer the leaf, the shorter the duration, usually. Of course, leaves like the mints, have antibacterial properties and so can be stored fresh longer than many other leaves of similar size, such as strawberry or blackberry leaves. However, refrigeration is only for very short-term storage and is not my main means of storage, by any means.
Let’s talk a little bit more in detail about drying and storing tea, herbal teas, and tea flavorings.
Actual green and black tea is a leaf, and a majority of the herbal teas and flavorings I grow are either leaves or flowers. Because of the decay and risk of fungus, mold, and general bacteria that moisture encourages, it is very important that, before these are stored in any way, they be thoroughly and completely dried. While many articles I’ve read on tea processing say that the leaves should have only 5-10% moisture, I believe they should have 0% moisture. Of course, these people may only be storing their tea in paper boxes and expecting them to be used within a year. I am expecting to store my for many years.
My personal experience taught me early on that it is possible to think that dried leaves are fully dry (or dry enough) when they are not. They crumbled, so I thought they were dry. However, the thicker veins must not have been. After months of storage, even in a cool and dark environment, I went to get my vacuum-sealed glass jar and found a fuzzy mess. What a disappointment! Regardless of the method you choose for drying your tea and tea flavorings, give a little extra drying time just to make sure the largest and thickest leaves, fruits, and roots are dried throughout before sealing them up for storage. That could mean the difference between pleasureable teas and a complete loss.
From what I read, there are multiple varieties of camelia sinensis and the processing of the leaves is a key aspects of what kind of tea you produce– green, black, white, or oolong. Longjing tea is flat and spear-shaped with leaves that are thin and soft. Biluochun tea is rolled into tight and curly spirals; it favors tiny leaves. In contrast, white tea favors fat buds with lots of silvery hairs and thick leaves. There is much information online about processing white tea, which is usually accomplished without appliances in the most natural manner. If you are growing camelia sinensis and want green tea, you should process the new leave shoots at 200 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 20 minutes and then leave it to air dry a little longer to be sure it is thoroughly dry. If you are processing the leaves as black tea, which is my favorite right along with white tea, roll leaves in between hands to bruise them and then air dry for 3-5 days or use a dehydrator or oven to dry at a very low temperature, such as 95 degrees. The process for oolong tea is much more complicated with a combination of solar and indoor withering, wok frying without oil (high heat), rolling the leaves, and only then drying.
Fruits, fruit peels, and roots should also be dried for long-term storage and will require much more time to dry than leaves or flowers, because of their moisture content, oils, and/or density. I have tried numerous methods for accomplishing the drying: freeze drying, dehydrating at low temperature heat, and air drying. All of these methods can work, but I find that freeze drying works best to retain the greatest flavor and minimize the risk of spoilage during the drying process, though a freeze dryer is a significant investment that may be best considered by a group or large family rather than a small family. If using a dehydrator or air drying, it is critical that items be placed loosely on wire racks, there be a good air flow that can pass between the leaves or flowers to rapidly and thoroughly dry them throughout, and adequate time is given for the drying process at low heat so as not to overly “cook” the leaves and flowers.
I have a large convection oven that goes down to 110 degrees Fahrenheit that I’ve also used, but my oven seems to get a bit warmer than that at times and isn’t optimal. I prefer drying at about 100-110 degrees. The Weston Pro 1000 Stainless Steel Food Dehydrator that we purchased from Ready Made Resources is my second favorite means for drying teas, herbs, and herb flavorings. (I appreciate the excellent service of SurvivalBlog’s advertisers and particularly this product recommendation from Ready Made Resources for my tea/herb drying, fruit drying, and jerky-making needs. This has been the tool for that, and their service is second to none!) There are times when the freeze dryer is just too busy making tomato powder or chicken alfredo or something else, so I gladly go for my Weston to deal with processing the lemon balm, peppermint, or other herbal teas and flavorings. Plus, it is the best for drying fruit leather and more. I’m very glad to have both the freeze dryer and the dehydrator among my prepping resources.
My methods for storage depend upon how much time I expect there to be between the time of harvest and use.
Most herbs (in the form of leaves and flowers) that are collected for tea flavoring or herbal teas, are collected in large quantity and stored in dry form for future use. Again, before tea or tea flavorings can be sealed in an air tight container for storage, they must be completely dry; otherwise, they will ruin and may be harmful to use as tea. For short-term shorage or while I am using them, I may store the tea or tea flavorings in glass jars or ziploc bags that are not vacuum sealed, but for long-term storage I find that vacuum sealing is important to retaining the flavors. There are a variety of ways to accomplish vacuum sealing, and some of those are outlined in other articles on SurvivalBlog.
We use Ball canning jars for a bulk of our long-term food storage needs. So, since we are accustomed to using vacuum-sealed jars for food storage and inventory, we use them for our teas and tea flavorings as well. However, as they are opened and sometimes mixed into custom tea flavorings, they are sometimes transferred into tea bags. Certainly, as we are going backpacking, camping, or on a road trip, we do not want to haul jars on our persons, so I will make bags of tea carried in Ziploc bags. Tea blends can also be put into decorative jars for gifts.
The herbal teas and tea flavoring leaves we grow are processed in bulk and stored in quart size jars under a vacuum and then placed in a dark, cool area for storage. While quart jars are not good for bugging out on foot, they are an excellent means of storing tea at your retreat. While under vacuum and in a secure location, there is no danger of insects, mice, or pests getting into your precious tea and ruining the “peace of mind in a cup” that awaits you once you reach your retreat in a TEOTWAWKI situation, if you must bug out.
The teas that we purchase at the grocery store are often in paper pouches inside cardboard boxes, but these tea leaves are also not completely dry. The industry standard is 5% moisture, so they cannot be packaged air tight. However, the oxygen causes decay of the tea. The key in your storage method is keeping out the air, light, heat, and moisture.
Leaves and flowers are typically freeze dried (or dehydrated, if the freeze dryer is not available) and stored in quart jars with a vacuum seal. These can be stored for years with excellent success, as long as they are fully dry when stored. I do not crush leaves much in order to minimize the likelihood of their turning to powder and making it difficult to cleanly diffuse.
Fruits and fruit peels will not store as long as leaves and flowers, as they cannot be fully dried unless freeze dried, which is not optimal for tea because the freeze-dried fruit and peel tends to crumble into powder. Rather than flavoring the tea, it escapes the diffuser and the water turns the powder to paste. Any tea you make with real fruit will not last long, particularly if it contains fruit segments and is not kept cold. It must be kept cold to slow fermentation, unless you are looking to make your own “brew”, which is a subject on which I am not qualified to write. I tend to dehydrate fruits and peels in one inch pieces and store them in vacuum sealed jars
Roots, such as ginger root, can be freeze dried quite successfully and used in tea. I do this often. It can also be dehydrated or used fresh. I slice the root into 1/4” slices to dry and typically just need to use one dried slice for either a cup or pot of tea.
Other Ingredients Bought in Bulk for Our Flavored Teas
In addition to these items that we grow, we keep a large supply of the following:
- Black/green tea leaves. While the bulk wholesale stores, like Costco and Sam’s Club, sell Lipton’s tea bags, I have found that there are sources for loose tea that are at least as inexpensive when purchased in bulk and are better tasting, in my opinion. I use black tea as a base for many of our tea blends. One of these improved, loose black teas is Typhoo loose tea. I can get almost two year’s worth of this black tea for under $60, with our family drinking a half gallon a day.
- Ginger root. I am currently attempting to grow this but have yet to know if I will be successful. Until I am able to grow an adequate supply for our family, I have found a local store that provides firm, fresh ginger at a competitive price, so I am buying it there. They probably think we are oriental food junkies, because that’s one of the few things I buy there regularly and in larger-than-usual quantity. (I do use it in my oriental cooking, but I’ve also told them that it is good for our family’s nausea, too. Who knows what they think. Hmm?)
- Orange peel. I buy a box of oranges from our whole store and make that box last several months, or until I dehydrate the peels and juice the oranges. Usually, I just peel a 1-inch wide slice about three inches long, making sure I don’t get much of the white pith. As I take off the peel, I cover that part of the orange with plastic wrap and store the orange in the refrigerator. Eventually, if no one is eating the fully peel oranges, I will juice a few for use in banana, strawberry, orange smoothies. If I decide to peel a lot at a time, I dehydrate the peel in those 1”x 3” sections and store in vacuum sealed jars. Alternatively, the peels can be stored in the refrigerator in a Ziploc bag for a few weeks, too. If you want to just buy dried orange peel, I have found the best and least expensive source is San Francisco Herb Co. Their Orange Peel, California cut or Orange Peel, Spanish Cut will work for tea. Just don’t get their orange granules, as they are too fine for tea.
- Lemon peel. Like, oranges, the outter peel of lemons can be peeled and used for flavoring tea. The oils of the citrus fruit have strong, sweet flavor without having to add any juice that causes tea to begin fermenting and quickly sour. Again, lemon peel can be dehydrated quite well and stored for months or even years. If you don’t want to do this yourself, consider San Francisco Herb Company. Dried lemon peel is less than $8 per pound.
- Cinnamon. To prevent floats in the tea, I prefer to use cinnamon chips for flavoring our tea. Again, SF Herb Company is my preferred source for this, but I have also purchased sticked and pieces from various suppliers on Amazon.
- Hibiscus flowers. This is a great addition to other floral or fruit teas. Again, my main supplier for these, in bulk, is San Francisco Herb. I’ve purchased elsewhere, but SF Herb has the best prices (at $6.20 per pound) and I’ve not found any better quality elsewhere. Those of us who don’t live in mild climates or have extensive green houses we can devote to flowers, will either have to do without this ingredient or put it away. I’m grateful for the resources to buy in bulk and store away, though I know there may come a day when I have to do without this one.
- Elderberries. I have purchased these from a variety of sources– Amazon, HerbalCom, and San Francisco Herb Co. I prefer HerbalCom and SF Herb, but if you are insistent upon organic certification then you may want to go with Amazon. The other two do not always have an organic certified option, though they are select in what they carry.
- Lemon juice/lemon powder. We sometimes use real lemons for squeezed juice as the glass or cup of tea is served or we may have bottles of juice purchased at our grocery wholesaler. However, we are pleased to find that we can purchase True Lemon in bulk and have it available, even if lemons are not. (The same is true of limes with other True citrus fruit juice products, like lime, grapefruit.)
- Vanilla beans. I just use a snip off the Madagascar vanilla beans that I have used from making vanilla extract. I have purchased these from Amazon’s vanilla products USA supplier in a quantity that is more than adequate for a year’s supply of homemade vanilla extract, ice cream, creme brulee, and coffee and tea flavoring. A little goes a very long way!
- Mango tea blend. We greatly enjoyed this blend from SF Herb company and were inspired by it to use our calendula in tea.
- White tea and also tea blends we come across to try for inspiration.
Some of Our Favorite Brands and Suppliers
For medicinal and herbal tea seeds, I have used a variety of suppliers, but my favorite sources are Strictly Medicine (formerly Horizon Herbs) and Victory Seeds. They provide excellent varieties of heirloom seeds in good packaging with excellent planting instructions. Strictly Medicine’s founders are experts at producing tinctures and herbal remedies, and Richo literally wrote the book on how to make your own tinctures and infused oils from homegrown herbs and plants. Victory Seeds has provided the highest quality customer service to me with seeds that have an extraordinary high germination rate in my garden.
Favorite Flavor Blends
- Black tea- Orange- Ginger
- Black tea- Chamomile/ chamomile-ginger
- Black tea- Chamomile- Lemon balm
- Black tea- Blackberry leaf- Hibiscus
- Chamomile- Ginger root- Honey
- Black or white tea- Blackberry leaf- Hibiscus- Vanilla bean
- White tea- strawberry leaves
There are many wonderful blends. These are just a few of our favorites. Beyond tea, we enjoy peppermint in our hot cocoa, too, and grow herbs for medicinal purposes beyond the “tasty” discussion above. So, as you are preparing for whatever lies ahead, don’t forget that you have the ability to begin growing and storing many of the not only tasty plants for beverages but ingredients that can sooth the body and soul in tough times.
“It has been well said that tea is suggestive of a thousand wants, from which spring the decencies and luxuries of civilization.” – Agnes Repplier