The first time I encountered the leaves of a stinging nettle, I was trekking through the woods in Western Mass. My exposed ankles brushed against their needle-like spicules, which shot burning fire into my skin and ruined the afternoon.
That’s why I was surprised when herbalist Holly Bellebuono told me stinging nettles were one of her favorite summertime teas.
“They’re coming up all over the Island,” she said in an interview with The Times. “They’re really good medicine.”
According to Bellebuono, stinging nettles are high in vitamins and minerals. People with a deficiency in calcium or iron can use it as a supplement to boost their mineral intake. It can also be helpful for people at risk of osteoporosis, or women who are anemic.
Bellebuono has been an herbalist for over 20 years, and knows the ins and outs of herbal and regular teas (yes, there’s a difference). She started the Bellebuono School of Herbal Medicine, and founded the Vineyard Herbs & Teas Apothecary, a business now run by Vineyard Haven resident Melissa Harding.
There are hundreds of herbs with medicinal properties, each of which can be brewed into a different tea. Since most tea drinkers will tell you their favorite blend depends on the season, we’ll start by focusing on the lighter summer teas.
Lemon balm is an herb in the mint family, and one that Bellebuono always has growing on her windowsill. Lemon balm treats anxiety, insomnia, and indigestion, and used topically, it can treat wounds, according to Lemon Balm 101, a page on traditionalmedicinals.com. It’s a light herb that can be brewed on its own, or blended into other creative concoctions. If you don’t want to grow your own, local food stores sell it in bulk.
Hibiscus is another popular summertime tea. It’s an herbal blend made as an infusion from crimson calyces of the roselle flower, according to traditionalmedicinals.com. It is often poured over ice, and used to cool down on a hot summer day. Hibiscus can support the cardiovascular system.
Dandelion root is a rich, robust blend, and oftentimes preferred in winter. According to Dandelion 101, it’s an ideal herb for stimulating the liver, supporting kidneys, and promoting healthy digestion.
Liquorice root is another herb noted for its rich robustness. It is particularly known to soothe a sore throat. It supports the digestive tract, and respiratory health, according to Bellebuono.
Harding likes the Squibnocket After-Dinner Tea sold at the Vineyard Herbs Apothecary. It contains spearmint, ginger, chamomile, fennel, fenugreek, catnip, lavender, and stevia. Chamomile and catnip are sedating herbs, and help with bloating and digestion, according to Harding.
“It’s calming and non-stimulating,” she said. “It was the original tea that drew me to the company.”
The Wise Woman Tea is another one of Harding’s favorites.
“It is a nourishing multi-mineral blend,” Harding said. “It makes me feel like I’m drinking my greens.”
Harding is also a labor delivery nurse at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. She makes blends that boost breast milk production, as well as a pregnancy tea that tones the uterus.
In addition to the physical, there are a number of emotional benefits to drinking tea.
“It’s supportive for the nervous system,” Bellebuono said, “It helps with stress, anxiety, grief, and sadness.”
She recommends skullcap, rose petal, and lemon balm for mild blends, or passion flower and St. John’s Wort for something a little stronger. Skullcap is widely known as “the stress relieving herb of our modern age,” according to Skullcap 101 on traditionalmedicinals.com. You can blend any of these hot or over ice, which will help with mood, concentration, and mental clarity, according to Bellebuono.
Many herbalists attest to a ritual.
“You harvest the plant, brew it, and that takes time,” Bellebuono said. “You experience the fragrant aroma, and there’s a spirituality that comes with that. It’s not like popping a pill. You’re getting medicine, but it can feel very ceremonial and therapeutic.”
“With loose-leaf tea, you don’t need to worry about packaging,” Harding said. “When you’re done, just take it outside. There’s a connection to ritual and spirituality, but you’re also supporting no-waste lifestyle.”
Bellebuono said it’s something she likes to introduce to families.
“It teaches self-sufficiency and awareness, and a sense of creativity and self-care,” Bellebuono said. “It can be a really empowering thing for children to learn, especially knowing it’s medicinal.”
All teas discussed up to this point are herbal, which is synonymous with medicinal. Regular teas are a classification of their own, and come from the plant camellia sinensis. This is the plant that produces black tea, green tea, white tea, pu’er, and oolong. All other teas are herbal, according to Bellebuono.
“Regular tea has its benefits,” she said. “They’re aromatic, soothing, and astringents, which can be very good topically for weepy open sores.”
Bellebuono has always been a tea drinker, and only started drinking coffee recently. “I tend to drink decaf,” she said. “I like its richness, but caffeine has never agreed with me.”
When it comes to supermarket blends, shop mindfully. There’s a “dust” manufacturers collect after the good stuff has been bagged, and that’s what’s sometimes sold on shelves. When in doubt, stick to whole-leaf teas. Bellebuono recommends buying from local herbalists, an apothecary, and from farms. She shared some tips and recipes.
“If you want to make one cup of tea, use one teaspoon per cup of boiling water,” Bellebuono said.
“I often tell people to get a whole handful, and use a quart of boiling water. Pour the boiling water over mason jars with the herbs, and let it sit with the lid on for 15-20 minutes — maybe an hour. This allows the chemicals to be extracted from the plant into the water. Then you strain, and have a delicious strong tea. This makes four cups to drink throughout the day, and that’s a typical dose.”
The following two recipes appear in Bellebuono’s book, “The Healing Kitchen: Cooking with Nourishing Herbs for Health, Wellness, and Vitality.” 2016 Roost Books.
Iced Flower Berry Zinger
Enjoy this fruity, colorful tea hot in the winter or iced in the summer. If making a pitcher of iced tea, brew it hot, then chill it and serve with slices of fresh lemons and oranges.
3 tsp. dried, chopped ginger root (or ½ cup fresh)
3 tsp. dried elderberries
2 tsp. dried hibiscus petals
½ tsp. ascorbic acid (vitamin C) powder, optional
honey, to taste
Combine the herbs in a 1-quart glass jar. Pour enough boiling water over them to fill the jar. Steep for 8 to 10 minutes, tightly covered. Strain the liquid and sweeten to taste, and stir in the ascorbic acid, if using. Store the hot tea in a thermos, or transfer to the refrigerator to chill. Drink 2 to 4 cups daily.
Yields 1 quart.
Nerve Tonic Tea
Blend these herbs together and store the mix in a tin so it’s available whenever you’re ready to make this delicious tea. This is a superb digestive blend and also a lovely nighttime tea because it helps the body to relax and soothes the nerves. This is an excellent blend for those who are so anxious or stressed it affects their digestion or their sleep.
3 tsp. dried, chopped ginger root
3 tsp. (a handful) of dried chamomile
2 tsp. dried spearmint
1 tsp. dried fennel seeds or leaves
1 tsp. dried lavender
½ tsp. dried stevia
Combine the herbs in a 1-quart glass jar. Pour enough boiling water over them to fill the jar. Steep for 8 to 12 minutes, tightly covered. Note that the stevia will develop a slightly saccharine flavor if left to steep too long. Strain the liquid and store the hot tea in a thermos. Drink 1 to 2 cups when feeling stressed, as a digestive aid, or before bed.
Yields 1 quart.
Vineyard Herbs and Teas are sold at the West Tisbury Farmers Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays, at Healthy Additions, Rainy Day, La Rue, and Not Your Sugar Mama’s sells them by the cup.