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Cold winter days are a fine time to plan a tea garden

February 11, 2010 |  7:44 am

"I just picked this from my backyard" is a phrase usually supplied by someone handing over a clump of kale, or maybe a calla lily bouquet. But it could easily apply to a pot of herbal tea.

It's completely doable here in California, where mild weather allows any backyard garden to become its own Celestial Seasons. Camomile, thyme, rose hips, ginger, endless varieties of mint, lemon grass and lemon balm, and even allspice all can be grown relatively easily, and all make great herbal teas.

Tempted? Check out Los Angeles-based garden guru Lili Singer's story about growing tea in the garden, which includes a list of each plant's needs, wants and growing patterns. "Plant well, and you'll be rewarded with a cup of aromatherapy at its best: camomile that calms, spearmint that soothes, lemongrass that refreshes," she writes. Read her full story here, or click to the jump for her list of tea plants that grow readily in L.A.

-- Deborah Netburn

Lili Singer's list of tea plants (adapted from the February 2007 story "A cup of tea is, oh, so cultivated")

Camomile: Tread on pretty camomile, and the finely cut foliage smells of ripe apples. Two species are popular for their dime-size, daisy-like flowers, yellow and white blooms used for tea. Roman camomile, Chamaemelum nobile (sometimes listed as Anthemis nobilis), is a widely available low perennial with creeping stems. German camomile, Matricaria recutita (available through www.reneesgarden.com), is a 15-inch-high annual preferred by many for its sweeter, more profuse blossoms. Both thrive in full sun with regular water.

Thyme: The best tea thymes are just as savory. Look to the same evergreen shrublets that cooks use: common or English thyme, Thymus vulgaris, and its cultivars Narrow-Leaf French, Variegated Lemon and Orange Balsam. All do well with full sun, moderate water and no feeding, in the ground and in pots. A bonus: syrphus flies, minuscule wasps and other beneficial insects reap pollen from thyme's tiny pink or lavender flowers.

Mint: Other tea garden staples include true mints, including pungent peppermint, Mentha x piperita, and milder spearmint, Mentha spicata, and its cultivar Mint the Best. These shade-loving perennials are invasive, however, and are best kept in pots to restrict their philandering roots. For lush, oil-rich leaves, the plants need regular water and light feedings during warm months. Yerba buena, Satureja douglasii, is a minty evergreen perennial with heart-shaped leaves on thin stems. This California cousin to Europe's true mints creeps through moist shade and drapes nicely over rocks, walls and pot rims.

Cleveland sage: On sunny days, the sweet perfume of Cleveland sage, Salvia clevelandii, wafts through the air. The drought-tolerant California native grows rapidly into a round bush 4 feet tall. Thick, gray-green leaves yield a robust tea for you, and the whorled, blue-purple flowers are enough to sate bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

Pineapple sage: Those critters are also drawn every autumn to the lipstick-red tubular flowers of pineapple sage, Salvia elegans. Many of these plants were damaged or killed by record low temperatures in January, but they're worth nurturing back to health or replacing. The downy green leaves emit fruity notes when brewed.

Rose hips: Colorful rose hips can give tea a pleasantly acidic accent -- and a hearty dose of vitamin C. Most roses grown for their hips are large, rambling plants that flower only once before setting seed. The crab-apple-size hips of a type of Rosa rugosa named Alba are tomato-red and among the tastiest.

Roselle: Few brews are tarter than ones made from roselle, Hibiscus sabdariffa, a red-leafed annual from the African tropics that's sometimes called flor de Jamaica. Ruby-red calyxes, the pie-shaped sections at the base of the seed pod, are responsible for the color and zing in Celestial Seasonings Red Zinger tea. Roselle plants are started from seed in early spring; they grow quickly to 3 feet before flowering in August. Ripe pods are harvested shortly thereafter. Look for young plants at nurseries or the spring plant sale at the Huntington Botanical Gardens. For seeds, try www.botanicalinterests.com.

Allspice: Many gardeners are surprised to learn that allspice isn't an amalgam of flavors but rather one specific plant, Pimenta dioica, an elegant evergreen tree from Jamaica. For tea drinkers, the long leaves are spicy and sweet in flavor and in scent. At Papaya Tree Nursery in Granada Hills (www.papayatreenursery.com), Alex Silber grows the most surprisingly aromatic hedge on his street: allspice grown in the ground (though it does fine in containers too), in full or partial sun with regular food and water.

Ginger: A seductive tea can be made from the fleshy rhizomes of common ginger, Zingiber officinale, a shade-loving tropical from Asia. Daring gardeners can start plants in spring from fresh (or green) divisions sold in supermarkets. Plant the rhizomes a few inches down in pots full of rich, fast-draining soil, then water and feed often through summer. Stop watering in autumn, let the upright emerald green leaves die back, then excavate your own succulent ginger "root."

Lemon balm: No tea garden is complete without at least one lemon-scented herb. Old-fashioned lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, is delicious. Just remember: The plant can spread rudely from seed.

Lemongrass: Lemongrass is equally appealing in tea, and the plant, Cymbopogon citratus, is well mannered. It forms tall clumps of narrow yellow-green leaves that grow to 3 feet and should be cut back to stumps each winter.

Mabel gray: The lobed leaves of lemon-scented Pelargonium citronellum Mabel Gray also produce a fine tea. In the garden, the plant forms a 4-foot evergreen mound with sprays of pinkish lavender flowers in autumn.

Lemon verbena: The most pleasing of all the lemony herbs just might be lemon verbena, Aloysia triphylla. The deciduous shrub grows to 10 feet tall, with rough pale-green leaves and sprays of tiny white flowers. It's a lovely ingredient for tea. Plant it next to a walkway, and all it takes is the innocuous brush of a passerby to release its heavenly scent.

Photo credit: Karen Tapia-Andersen / Los Angeles Times