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Taking tea at Chelsea

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Jekka McVicar Jekka McVicar | 07:00 UK time, Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Angelica archangelica

Angelica archangelica

Running a herb farm in the run‐up to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show is all about multi‐tasking.

My Royal Wedding last month was a brief glimpse of the new Duchess of Cambridge, looking stunning as she walked up the aisle, in between watering the angelica (Angelica archangelica) and borage (Borago officinalis). The borage we’re growing for Bunny Guinness’s M&G Investment Garden at Chelsea this year, as well as Marney Hall’s Skyshades Garden, and Patrick Collins’ B&Q Garden. Then I was dashing inside to catch a glimpse of the Royal Wedding procession in between blending herbs for the herbal teas I'm launching this year at the show.

Herbal infusions can be made from fresh - if in season - or dried herbs. The fresh version
usually requires a few torn leaves or a 3‐4cm sprig of rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) for
example, with just‐boiled (not boiling) water poured over. Cover and steep for five minutes.

It’s incredibly satisfying to pick your own tea fresh from the garden and have the aroma
filling your kitchen all within the space of ten minutes.

However, unless you’re a herb farmer, the odds are slim that you’ll have enough fresh peppermint (Mentha x piperita) or lemon verbena (Aloysia citriodora) for a daily cuppa. And some herbs make a better tea dried than fresh - Roman chamomile flowers (Chamaemelum nobile), for example.

lemon grass

Lemon Grass (Cymbopogon citratus)

There are many citrus herbs which make delicious, refreshing and beneficial infusions.
Lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) makes an aromatic, spicy lemon tea, but isn’t easy to
grow in our cooler UK climes: this native of the tropics needs temperatures above 80°C (480°F)
to survive, so it’s best planted in containers so that it can be over wintered in a well
ventilated, frost free environment.

Use a loam based compost, and don’t allow it to dry out in summer. This plant is happiest when pot bound, so choose a pot which fits snugly around the roots. Harvest fresh leaves in summer to use fresh, or dry them by lying them on a frame covered in muslin which is then placed in a light airy room but not in direct sunlight.

In two weeks the leaves will become crisp and dry; cut them into 2cm lengths, then store in
a clean, airtight container in a dark cupboard and they will keep for 2‐3 years.

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is another citrus herb that dries well for herbal tea and has
been attributed with many health benefits. This plant can be invasive, so plant in a pot and
then sink the pot into the ground.

Another king amongst herbs, both for a stunning wildflower effect in the garden and for a
reviving herbal tea, is the cornflower (Centaurea cyanus). This hardy annual has a beautiful,
bright blue flower – much loved by bees and butterflies, so an excellent biodiversity plant.

The petals look beautiful in any dried herb preparation – tea or pot pourri – but are best
blended with more flavoursome herbs, such as rosemary or lemon balm.

Now, I’m off to sort out the angelica again – it’s been so windy lately, and the plants are now almost two metres high - so tall I have to keep moving them to keep them from toppling over!

Jekka McVicar is an organic gardening expert, author and broadcaster. She specialises in the cultivation and use of herbs and runs her own herb farm.

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