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The joys of a tea garden

  • Teapots owned by Janet Barocco. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

All true teas, whether white, green, oolong or black, come from one plant — Camellia sinensis.

A flowering plant native to the high mountains of the Yunnan province of Southern China, it is not necessarily an easy thing to grow. In fact, growing quality tea can be as complex as growing great grapes for fine wine, says Cassie Liversidge, a London-based writer in her new book "Homegrown Tea," (St. Martin's Griffin).

But there are a seemingly limitless number of easy-to-grow herbs, shrubs and plants, from anise hyssop to ginger, that make tasty and even healing "tisanes," the proper name for herbal teas.

Tea Herb Garden

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"When I was a child, we went to my grandmother's house every day after school for tea," said Ellyn Pelikan, a master gardener who grows many herbs for tea on her small flower farm in Sebastopol. "She and my mother would set the tea table and we would go to the herb garden and pick whatever we wanted that day for tea. It was from these two women that I learned the subtle nuances of 'taking tea.' This was our afternoon snack and talking time."

She says to this day she and her sister still love to "take tea" in her garden, using her mother's china teapot and delicate bone china teacups.

Essential in any tea garden, Pelikan advises, are mints — spearmint, peppermint, orange mint and lemon balm; lemon verbena, pineapple sage and rosemary.

Sheana Davis says she's not much of a gardener. But the Sonoma chef has been growing herbs for more than 20 years, using them not just for enhancing the flavor of food, but for creating sun teas that she drinks by the quart every day.

Her whole front yard is a jungle of plants like rosemary, whose leaves can be steeped in water for refreshing and hydrating tisanes. Along a fence in her backyard are raised beds full of more culinary herbs like lavender, that also make tasty tisanes.

Each morning Davis engages in the ritual of trolling her yard and plucking leaves that she puts in quart jars of fresh boiling water and leaves out in the sun. She drinks at least two quart jars of the infused water each day, which helps her keep hydrated at work without resorting to unhealthy sodas.

"Lemon verbena is, hands down, my favorite," she said of the highly-scented hardy perennial shrub that produces pale lilac flowers, grows to about five feet and doesn't require much water. The leaves contain a lemon-scented essential oil that makes for a fresh lemony tisane believed by many herbalists to promote sleep and help clear congestion.


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