Years ago, I, like many college students, spent a lot of time in cafes and coffee shops as I pursued my degree. I soon found that coffee was too strong for me—I couldn’t handle the effects caffeine had on my system. Instead, tea became my comfort beverage of choice, though I always felt a little silly forking over $4.00 for something that I could make at home with little more than a pot of boiling water by foraging for old field tea.
Later, I became a homesteader with a serious desire for self-sufficiency. I never much liked the idea of having food or drink shipped halfway around the world to make it into my table—hardly sustainable or self-sufficient. Soon after I moved to our 12 acres, I began realizing I was literally walking knee-deep in delicious and nutritious tea ingredients. No label needed to tell me that these were sustainably-harvested, organic, fair-trade, or locally blended: my eyes could tell me that!
So, while reading the fabulous Foxfire book series, I found the term “Old Field Tea” in a faded, dog-eared copy of Foxfire 3. If you’re unfamiliar with the books, they are a treasure trove of old knowledge and stories collected from self-sufficient Appalachians before their knowledge disappeared with them. Though I didn’t find all the plants mentioned in the old book—I live in the Ozarks, rather than homesteading in the Appalachian Mountains, after all—I liked the idea of knowing my fields well enough to drink them.
My family truly enjoys sipping the flavors of our local terroir in an evening cup of tea, and it’s a joy you could find for yourself as well. I guarantee there are plants in your area that could make a healthy, delicious, caffeine-free, and totally organic tea that won’t cost you a dime. All you will need to spend is a morning or and afternoon outdoors—and that is a price any homesteader would be happy to pay.
A Foraged Tea Cabinet
The following is just a sampling of the many wild plants that can be foraged to make your own old field tea. They are generally easy to identify and they grow in enough abundance that you won’t harm their populations. Many of these plants also have medicinal properties, but for the purpose of this article, we’ll just be enjoying their wonderful flavors and aromas. If you haven’t done it today, take a stroll around your property and see if any of these free gifts from nature are there for the taking!
Red Clover (Trifolium pratense): A favorite of browsing animals and buzzing bees, red clover is a wonderful tea to brew to welcome spring. Historically used as a “tonic” to help winter-worn bodies recover from the long cold, the blossoms have a sweet, grassy flavor. Collect fresh blossoms in the morning if you can; they’re best then.
Self Heal (Prunella vulgaris): This plant is often sprayed and poisoned out of lawns, which is a real shame since it is so useful. With spires of lavender flowers and delicately pointed leaves, I find it quite lovely. In tea, they taste rather rich and borderline bitter, which can have a good balancing effect on a tea blend.
Blackberry (various Rubus species): Most kids who still have access to a wild scrap of the outdoors know the unique joy of stuffing their faces with the juicy, shiny berries of wild blackberry brambles, even despite the inevitable scratches. Lesser known, however, is that their leaves are also delicious. Blackberry leaves taste like the fruit but in a more herbaceous, malty way. I find that they add a wonderful base note to any wild tea blend.
American Pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides): I often find wild mint with my feet and my nose before I find it with my eyes. The unmistakable scent of foot-trodden mint is a special delight for the outdoor adventurer. Pennyroyal is a low-growing member of the mint family that boasts tiny, light-green leaves and lavender flowers. If you pick a hand full of it, rub the aromatic oil it leaves behind on your neck and arms… it’s a mosquito repellent, too! This plant has a bad reputation because it is associated with some fatalities from its misuse, but this is a shame. The hyper-concentrated essential oil contains possibly lethal doses of pulegone if taken internally. A simple tea, however, it is totally safe and deserves no fear. I have enjoyed it many times. The herb is wonderful in a tea, but strong! A little goes a long way.
Wild Bergamot (Monarda bradburiana): This member of the Bee Balm family is a beautiful, deer-resistant perennial that is as welcome in the meadow as it is in the garden. Its leaves and flowers have an aroma reminiscent of sweet oregano, touched with honey. It makes a fabulous iced tea on its own!
New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus): Historically called “red root,” this delicate, white-flowered shrub played a part in the Revolutionary War as a tea substitute, and thus got rebranded. The leaves can be dried green or oxidized, just like conventional tea leaves, and really do taste close to the “real” stuff—I almost prefer it!
Our Ozark Old Field Tea Recipe
- 1 part blackberry leaf
- 1 part red clover blossom
- 1/4 part pennyroyal
- 1/2 part self-heal flower heads
- 1 part New Jersey Tea
All of these ingredients can be used fresh or dried. I like to go foraging for old field tea ingredients in the spring, pick a mess of them, dry them carefully, and then treat my family to a sip of spring-in-a-cup in the dead of winter. Simply mix the amount you need for the people you’re serving—usually, one tablespoon dried material per person—and allow to steep for 3-7 minutes in freshly boiled water.
A Quick 4-1-1 on Foraging
If you are new to foraging for edible or medicinal plants, there are some key things to keep in mind as you begin the delicious and nutritious adventure. These helpful guidelines are important to keeping you safe, the land healthy, and your neighbors respected.
First, forage for plants that you know. It seems like an obvious instruction, but the confidence needed to go out and find a forest dinner only comes with years of practice. If you are new to plant identification, try to either forage with an experienced teacher to learn the ropes, join up with a class (many nature centers and parks offer free programs), or delve into the books. Samuel Thayer’s three foraging books (The Forager’s Harvest, Nature’s Garden, and Incredible Wild Edibles) are at the top of my list of recommendations for the intrepid forager.
Second, follow the forager’s rule of thirds. When you find that treasure trove of edible goodness, don’t get greedy. Take only up to a third of what you see for yourself, and distribute your impact so it doesn’t look obvious. Leave a third for wildlife to pollinate, hide beneath, and eat, and leave the final third to reproduce for next year.
Finally, forage where it is safe. If you are on your own property, you know what has or has not been sprayed, but when you’re out and about, there’s no telling what chemicals might be dumped on land you don’t know. Don’t forage from the polluted edges of roads or from public grounds that look really nice—chances are, they look pretty for a chemically-controlled reason. Additionally, be sure that you have permission to remove plant material from land you don’t own.
I hope this recipe inspires you to explore your area with new eyes. Even if you can’t find the same plants I enjoy in your neck of the woods, I guarantee there’s something new for you to discover if you take the time. And hopefully, it will end in a comforting, steaming cup of something delicious, special, and unique.
About the Author: At first, Wren was an environmental educator and language teacher living in the city. Then, she and her husband decided to escape from the confines of city life and its dependence, and move their family to 12 acres in the Ozarks. They are currently in the middle of establishing their dream of a self-sufficient, permaculture-based, off-grid homestead, one step at a time. She can be typically found armpit-deep in brush foraging, cooking on cast iron, talking to her ducks and chickens, pumping yet another bucket of water from the well, and, in quiet moments, sketching art around the homestead.