Five of the best: plants for foraged teas and infusions

Summer and early autumn are among the best months for gathering herbs and plants for drying and tea making — and there’s plenty of choice out there for those who would like to brew their own infusions from foraged ingredients.


Pineapple weed tea

Pineapple Weed (Matricaria discoidea)

Other common names: wild chamomile and disc mayweed

Season: can be picked from May to October

Pineapple weed is an aromatic herb from the daisy family (Asteraceae) and makes a fragrant tea with a pleasant pineapple flavour. It is very simple to brew and can be quickly prepared by pouring hot water onto the freshly-picked flower heads. Because it is both easy to use and identify, it’s an excellent starter plant for those trying foraged teas for the first time. Pineapple weed can also be used to make an iced tea or boiled up with sugar to create cordials and syrups.


It is a type of chamomile but because of its distinctive smell and appearance it is far easier to identify than Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) and German chamomile (Matricaria recutita), the plants most commonly used in shop-bought, dried chamomile teas. Pineapple weed is unmistakable as it looks like a daisy without the petals (ray florets) and smells of pineapple when crushed.


The plant was introduced into the UK from Asia in the late 19th century and has become a naturalised species (Wildlifetrusts.org). Its broad spread has been attributed to it being picked up easily on tyre treads and feet. This is one of the downsides of pineapple weed, as it tends to grow in disturbed, well-trodden ground, such as along paths and in gateways, which does make it vulnerable to contamination from footfall and dogs.


While Roman and German chamomile can be also be foraged, it is easily confused in appearance with other mayweeds such as stinking chamomile and scentless mayweed – both of which are considered as mildly toxic to some grazing animals.


A bundle of mugwort drying

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)

Other common names: common wormwood, moxa, sailor's tobacco, felon herb, naughty man and old uncle Henry

Season: can be picked from summer until early autumn Mugwort is a hugely common perennial weed that prefers nitrogenous soils but isn’t too fussy about its environment, making it easy to find and gather in quantities. Like the chamomiles, it is a member of the daisy family, Asteraceae. Mugwort does have culinary uses, although the mature plant tastes bitter. In Asia, its young shoots are used as a seasonal vegetable in stir fries. In the west, the dried leaves are more often drunk as a tea or smoked. It is claimed to promote lucid dreaming. The effect is thought to be produced by the thujone contained in the plant.


Thujone is best-known as the chemical compound in absinthe, which is credited with producing the spirit’s stimulant and psychoactive effects. The thujone in absinthe comes from wormwood, which is a close relative of mugwort.


While in the UK “mugwort” is usually used to refer to Artemisia vulgaris, the term mugwort can be used to describe to up to 200 plants in the artemisia genus, of which Artemisia absinthium (wormwood) is one. Thujone can be toxic in large amounts, so mugwort should only be consumed in moderation. Mugwort is also considered unsafe for use in pregnancy as it is alleged to stimulate uterine contractions (US National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, n.d).


Spearmint tea

Spearmint (Mentha spicata)

Other common names: common mint, lamb mint and garden mint

Season: can be picked from late spring to mid-autumn This native European and Asian perennial herb has been used by humans throughout recorded history. It is mentioned by both Pliny and in the Bible, while in Greek mythology the plant is sacred to Hades— featuring in the story of the naiad Minthe, who was turned into a mint plant by an angry Persephone. Traditionally, it is considered a mood-improver, with Pliny describing it as having a scent capable of reanimating the spirit, while the 16th-century herbalist John Gerard in his Generall Historie of Plantes noted its use in relieving headaches and calming the stomach. The principal components of its oil include carvone, which gives spearmint its fragrance, and menthol — although this appears in lower concentrations than in its hybrid offspring with watermint, peppermint. The oil has long history as a flavouring, while the leaves appear in traditional condiments, including the classic British accompaniment to roast lamb, mint sauce, and the Mediterranean cucumber and yoghurt dip, Tzatziki. Spearmint is very easy to use as an infusion — the torn leaves just need to be steeped in hot water for a few minutes before being ready to drink. It is also a common ingredient in other beverages, including mojitos and mint juleps.


As with many herbs, spearmint has not been proved safe to consume in large quantities, so should only be drunk in moderation (www.webmd.com).


A jug of cleavers water

Cleavers (Galium aparine)

Other common names: sticky willy, catchweed, goosegrass.

Season: Can be picked throughout spring and summer


This straggly, clinging weed earned its common names because of its hook-like bristles, which cause it to stick of “cleave” to clothes, skin and fur. It’s a very common hedgerow and verge herb, which can often be found weaving its way through nettles and grasses. Many remember it as a popular “playground” plant, which children have long used to annoy their friends.


Its family name Galium is an epithet earned by its bedstraw relative Galium verum. Galium comes from the Greek word for milk, which Galium verum flowers were used to curdle. It’s possible the name had a parallel derivative though — both the Greek pharmacologist, botanist and physician Dioscorides and the Swedish botanist Linnaeus reported shepherds in both ancient Greece and Sweden using cleaver’s stems to make a rough sieve to filter milk (Grieve, 1931).


Although cleavers does not possess its relative’s scent, its is a fairly versatile edible. Its leaves and stems can be cooked and eaten as a leaf vegetable before the fruits appear. Its seeds, which contain caffeine, can be dried, roasted and ground into a coffee substitute. It is most commonly used as a simple infusion, however, made with a handful of the plant left to sit in cold water for at least 4hrs-48hrs. This produces a refreshing drink, reminiscent of cucumber water.


Cleavers has historic use as a “cleansing” herb and in folk medicine its infusion is used to help flush out the lymphatic system and treat oedema. It has also been used since antiquity to soothe wounds and burns and drain bites (Gruenwald et al., 2004). It may well be a useful tonic. Extracts of the plant have also shown potential for helping stimulate the immune system (Ilina et al., 2019); have been effective against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus strains (Sharifi-Rad et al., 2016) and have shown an antiproliferative effect on human breast cancer cells (Atmaca et al., 2016).


Lime flowers

Lime flower (Tilia spp.)

Other common names: Linden

Season: The trees typically bloom in June and July


The lime tree has something to offer throughout the seasons, as its young leaves, flowers and fruits are all edible. The trees are popular in parks, gardens and in urban planting, so they are also an easy spot. Their creamy-yellow flowers, which are the most useful part for teas and syrups, bloom in June and July for two to three weeks, although you may have to fight off the pollinating insects to get to them.


In continental Europe, lime flowers are popular for tisanes (herbal teas), particularly in Poland, where linden tea bags can be bought in most supermarkets. The flowers are best used when newly-opened, and tea can be made from them when fresh or dried. Just add boiling water and steep for around 15mins.


A cup of tea is always soothing, but in folk medicine, Tilia tea has been used in particular to calm anxiety and lower blood pressure. There has been some investigation into how the tree promotes relaxation: extracts from the variant silver linden (Tilia tomentosa Moench) have been shown to inhibit network excitability in the brains of mince by mimicking the inhibitory chemical gaba-aminobutyric acid (GABA) (Allio et al., 2015). Lime is able to lower blood pressure as it contains the essential oil farnesol, which acts as a vasodilator. Care should be taken when consuming too much of this tea, however, as it may cause drowsiness.


References


Allio, A., Calorio, C., Franchino, C., Gavello, D., Carbone, E., & Marcantoni, A. (2015). Bud extracts from Tilia tomentosa Moench inhibit hippocampal neuronal firing through GABAA and benzodiazepine receptors activation. Journal of ethnopharmacology, 172, 288–296.


Atmaca, H., Bozkurt, E., Cittan, M., & Dilek Tepe, H. (2016). Effects of Galium aparine extract on the cell viability, cell cycle and cell death in breast cancer cell lines. Journal of ethnopharmacology, 186, 305–310.


Grieve, M. (1931). A Modern herbal. Cape

Gruenwald J., Brendler T., Jaenicke C. (2004). Thompson PDR for Herbal Medicines, ediția 3, Thomson PDR ant Montavale, p. 202-203, 813-814, 496-497.


Ilina, T., Kashpur, N., Granica, S., Bazylko, A., Shinkovenko, I., Kovalyova, A., … Koshovyi, O. (2019). Phytochemical Profiles and In Vitro Immunomodulatory Activity of Ethanolic Extracts from Galium aparine L. Plants, 8(12), 541.


Mugwort. NCCIH (n.d)


Pineapple weed | The Wildlife Trusts. (n.d.)


Spearmint: Uses, Side Effects, Interactions, Dosage, and Warning. Webmd.com (2019).


Sharifi-Rad, M., Iriti, M., Sharifi-Rad, M., Gibbons, S., & Sharifi-Rad, J. (2016). Anti-methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) activity of Rubiaceae, Fabaceae and Poaceae plants: A search for new sources of useful alternative antibacterials against MRSA infections. Cellular and molecular biology (Noisy-le-Grand, France), 62(9), 39–45.

Always make sure you are 100% sure of your identification before consuming any plant or mushroom. If in doubt, leave it out.