Birds, Pollinators, and Tea: A Natural Combination
Herbal tea as a daily ritual and source of connection
Local food, gardening, pollinators, and birds can all be connected through tea. Holy Basil, Calendula, Mint, Anise Hyssop, Red Clover, Black Currant, Elderberry, and Mountain Mint are a few of the plants that are good for tea, pollinators, gardens, and birds. My daily routine begins with making tea. I start with green tea and then I harvest herbs and other tea ingredients from my garden to make herbal tea. This slow approach to tea creates a meaningful ritual and connects you with a worldwide community of tea drinkers that consume 3 billion cups of tea per day.
Starting in spring, the bright pink flowers of red clover draw me into the quiet of the early morning garden. The more I pick them, the more they produce. After I wander through the clover patch I turn to check my patch of Calendula and find a new batch of bright orange flowers waving in the breeze. I walk past peppermint next and see that it has put on six inches of new growth. The bottom of my harvest basket is starting to look like a rainbow. I pluck a few leaves and berries off a black currant shrub and return to the kitchen with my morning tea harvest.
This is my daily ritual throughout the growing season. I rinse the leaves and flowers and put them into a Buydeem kettle and turn it on to 195 degrees. Three to ten minutes later the tea is ready. You can vary the temperature and time to suit your taste. Hotter temperatures and more time can be useful for extracting flavor from berries and coarser plant parts like stems. While the tea is steeping, the uplifting aroma of mint fills the house. The tea itself is aromatic, vibrant, full of delicious flavors, and rich in complex nutrition.
Growing tea is a way to provide your own daily nourishment. The energy from the sun and the magic and mystery of plant chemistry intermingle in your cup. The resulting flavors are subtle, ephemeral, and ineffable.
Walking through your garden every day also connects you to the seasons and the lives of insects. Stopping to admire mint flowers reveals the thrumming frenetic activity of pollinators. Different insects appear in distinct waves depending on their life cycle and the time of year. Insects have seasonal abundance peaks and valleys just like birds. You can also detect who is dominant by watching all of the chasing behavior and displacement. If you look closely, you can see that insects tend to avoid certain flowers; they will hover near them and then move on to one that they prefer. Some flowers have their nectar and pollen stores more depleted than others, and the insects are picky. They use diverse photoreceptors to detect ultraviolet light and other wavelengths that are attuned to the pigments in flowers.
Once you tune in, you realize that you are witnessing an incredibly complex and intricate dance, much of which we do not understand. Some flowers produce nectar and pollen that is toxic to certain species and preferred by others. The relationships between insects and flowers range from mutualism to theft. Some flowers limit who can access their pollen by holding their pollen inside tubes. This requires insects like bumblebees with strong flight muscles to vibrate the flower at just the right frequency to shake the pollen loose.
The same plant can vary across different regions. The chemical composition of its pollen and nectar can be unique to its place. This is an important reason to grow locally adapted native plants as a way to support insects and birds. Many tea plants will produce seeds for birds in the fall if you let them complete their life cycle.
Red clover flowers stand out to me as one of the most interesting tea ingredients. The flowers are bright pink and they produce tea with a complex and compelling flavor profile. It is hard to describe, but I find myself drawn to it and that seems reason enough to embrace it. Red clover is also a cover crop for your garden that improves your soil and attracts and feeds pollinators; it is a win-win scenario for you and your garden. It can be hard to find red clover seeds in small quantities. I order Medium Red Clover from Johnny’s Seeds.
One of the benefits of drinking tea is that it can help you quit coffee. I used to drink coffee and I understand its appeal; however, I find that the energy spike and jitters it delivers set me on a less desirable trajectory for the day. Green tea provides a more subtle lift and allows for a moderate and more even keel approach to life.
I buy tea from Upton Tea Imports. They have an amazing selection of high-quality tea from around the world. Perusing their catalog provides a glimpse into the intricate human relationship with Camellia sinensis, which is the source of all types of tea. There are over 1,000 varieties of tea in China alone. This remarkable diversity provides a wide range of flavors in tea.
After much experimenting, I have settled on this Japanese Sencha green tea. As I gradually adjusted to green tea, the compelling nature of coffee and the caffeine it delivers gradually lost its grip on me. I still try coffee occasionally when we are traveling. Compared to tea, coffee now seems overbearing and indelicate. I know many people love coffee, and fortunately, the choice to drink tea is not an either-or proposition.
One of the benefits of herbal tea over coffee is that it is part of local food systems. We even have our own tea plant in the southeastern US - Yaupon or Cassina, a type of holly that contains caffeine. It produces a tea similar to Yerba Mate. Farmers that grow vegetables often grow herbs and flowers too. Some of them sell cut flowers, herbs, and dried tea as part of their offerings. In my area, Sunny Lane Farm is one such farm that produces a wide array of fruit, plant starts, and tea. Their tea carries me through the winter until my plants put on new growth in the spring. Supporting local farms that grow diverse products is a way to support an authentic agrarian culture. Tea is more than a drink. It is a pillar of culture and can be a powerful agent for change.
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Great suggestions for tea. Looking forward to growing some calendula this year!