I've been in search of a readily available, tasty tea herb that I can store up in bulk for the winter. Based on various tips and articles, I've tried blackberry leaf, nettle, etc., but nothing has really wowed me. Recently though, I came across a post from a local herbalist talking about the benefits of fireweed tea, as well as its pleasant flavor: http://wildfoodsandmedicines.com/fireweed/. Of course, more digging can lead you to other people claiming that it can cause nausea and vomiting - the usual fun conflicting wildcrafting information you come across, so I decided to try it myself and see.
I picked two leaves off a plant growing by our patio and let them dry until crispy. I then added them to water just off the boil, using a tea strainer, and steeped for a couple of minutes until I had a pale yellow brew. It smelled beautiful and tasted just as good: floral and citrus notes, balanced by a mild tannic bitterness. It's excellent by itself, but I also think it would make a nice backbone to blends with things like mint and lavender.
I plan to head up to the clear cut by our house and harvest a good stock of leaves before the fireweed is done so that I can drink this all winter.
Fireweed tea has a long tradition in Northern Russia. In many regions of Russia, production of fireweed tea was greater than import of traditional teas. Alaska has a significant number of citizens with memory of the food and herbal traditions of that region. Thanks to their generous sharing of information, this is becoming an Alaskan tradition. Simple drying is one way to make the tea, but the traditional method involved "fermenting" the leafs, which is really an enzymatic oxidation just as practiced with traditional leaf teas. It produces a tea leaf very similar to oolong.
If you are interested in trying this, an simple way to produce this tea is to collect a basket of tender fireweed leaves and wilt overnight or for a few hours in the sun. Wrap the wilted leaves into a small tight roll and forcefully roll them on a hard flat surface to damage all of the leaves and release the enzymes. The rolls of "tea" leaves are then packed into a flat pan or backing dish and kept moist with a damp towel over the top. I usually place the backing dish on a warm surface like a seedling starting mat to maintain at 75-85 degrees F. This is kept moist and incubated for 48 hours and then dried. It can be incubated longer or shorter, depending on taste. The longer it goes the darker the leaf but the greater chance of molding.
Good question! We did a side by side comparison today, the dried fireweed leaves are good, but the fermented tea tastes, well, like tea. Rich and complex, without the slightly grassy taste of the dried fireweed. I'd say, for out tastes at least, the labor is well worth it. Indeed, I am making another batch of fermented leaves right now. With the price of black or green tea, the fireweed tea is such a great local resource at a perfect price: free and so much fun foraging.
Thanks again. I decided a side by side was the only real way to know myself, so I went a grabbed some this afternoon. I've got some in the dehydrator, and some rolled and pressed as described, waiting for their turn to dry in a few days.
I actually grew up in Southcentral Alaska, so I'm kind of amazed that it took 30+ years and a move to Washington for me to learn this. I'm thinking of giving some to family for Christmas, but it seems a little silly to give them something they could grab from any roadside.
I'm sipping my first glass of tea made from the fermented leaves as we speak, and thought I'd come back to add an update.
Christine, I think your comparison to oolong is really spot on. It's kind of amazing. If someone served this to me without explanation, I wouldn't question for a second whether it was regular old Camellia sinensis.
For a summer brew, I may still prefer the plain dried leaves. The floral and fruity notes are stronger that way, and I find that more refreshing. The fermented leaves will make a great winter warmer, though, with their richer, nuttier taste.
Thanks again for passing on this great technique. I'm spreading the word to all my tea-loving permie friends around here.
I've read to harvest the leaves for tea while the plant is in flower. Ours are all gone to seed and in decline now, but yours might be fine.
You can harvest leaves and still let the plant go to seed by gently grabbing below the first few sets of leaves under the flower and sliding your hand down. You'll get a handful of leaves, but the plant will be (pretty much) okay.
I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you - Fred Rogers. Tiny ad: