I’ve spent most of my free time this spring and summer learning about the different native plants we have in our area and what can be done with them. I’ve tried making a few herbal teas but they always felt like they were missing some key ingredient or a foundation or something. Well, I think I finally found it!
I learned how to make tea which is exactly as tasty and satisfying as “real” tea (meaning Camellia sinensis; the tea people generally refer to when they just say “tea”). It is naturally caffeine-free. It has an interesting history, and I have read a lot about its health benefits but won’t go into all that now because let’s be honest, I’d just google it and paraphrase other articles. What I want to write about is how my own experience making it went, and my honest opinion after tasting it. (If you do want that more in depth info, this is a good place to start, and that’s where I got the preparation instructions too.)
I’m very sensitive when it comes to some things like sound and touch, but not when it comes to taste. For whatever reason, I’m not one of those people who really appreciates “floral and fruity notes” or “earthy, nutty” flavours. I’ve always understood the “earthy, nutty” description to mean “boring”. Maybe this is why I’m not that into cooking. Anyway, if I’m going to enjoy a food or drink, it needs to be obviously tasty, not with such a subtle flavour that I need to concentrate to decide whether or not it tastes good. Sorry foodies 🙂
Anyway, that is my way of saying you should seriously try this tea! I first tried fireweed tea with just dried leaves, and I felt like I might as well just brew up a cup of grass. I wanted to like it, but I didn’t. I then read about this oxidation process which removes the grass taste and was immediately interested.
It was AWESOME.
It didn’t taste like grass. It didn’t taste “green” at all. It was bold, rich, it had the same “mouth feel” as tea and left a nice aftertaste. I might even say it was “complex”. Just look at the words I’m using.
Fireweed is a common plant here, and harvesting it does minimal damage to the plant itself, and from what I can tell it has little or no impact on the ecosystem it grows in, depending on your harvesting technique. If you have this stuff around you, this can be a truly, genuinely eco-friendly way to drink tea.
At worst, there could be some soil compaction from me trampling through the patch, and some plants will inevitably be stepped on along the way, but that’s it. I leave the flowers alone. I gently remove leaves from only the top section of the stalk, so the plant can just seal up those wounds and carry on. As long as it doesn’t pick up an infection of some kind, it should be completely fine. I noticed that there were usually some tiny little mini-leaves just above the nodes of the leaves I harvested, so most likely the plant will simply grow those out and replace the leaves I took in a couple of days. I noticed harvesting nettles in spring that the plants would often end up being larger and more robust a few days after I harvested them. That could be the case here too, with careful and conscious harvesting.
We have several patches of fireweed around our property, and I have seen lots of it along roadsides too, although that isn’t a great place to harvest them (roads are a significant source of dust and pollution that lands on or is absorbed by the plants near them). We obviously don’t spray poison on our land, so there is no concern here about pesticides or herbicides. And, since this is a native plant the leaves are typically healthy and in good condition, being well adapted to the particular challenges of this ecosystem. Fireweed thrives without any need for human intervention.
Below is a picture showing how I harvest a single leaf, grasping the base and just gently turning the petiole (leaf stalk) downwards towards the stem. It snaps off very easily with minimal harm to the stem. Occasionally a little strip of the stem peels off with it but I try to minimize that. There is a quicker method of harvesting the leaves which is to wrap your hand around the stem and just slide it downwards. The leaves break off easily so you can strip off a handful at once, but I find that method a bit fumbly and can be more damaging to the leaves, plus you have a greater chance of accidentally picking up leaves with damage or insects on them. I prefer the one at a time method, but I do alternate between them. I’m still learning 🙂
If you want to try this, one useful key to identifying fireweed is to look carefully at the leaf veins. In the picture below, pay attention to the outer edge of the leaf, there is a vein that runs parallel, leaving a little space or border zone around the edge. The main veins running across from the center appear to connect to each other and loop around to create a border instead of running all the way to the edge of the leaf.
It is a very striking and beautiful plant, and if you live in an area where it grows wild you’ve probably noticed it before. It’s hard to miss. It is widespread across the northern hemisphere, and it particularly likes disturbed areas, especially places that have been devastated by forest fires or logging. Fireweed is a pioneer and a natural healer; it adds beauty and the promise of a bright future after traumatic loss.
The first step after harvesting leaves is to let them wilt in the sun or a warm place for a while. When the wilted leaves are ready, they will bend in half without snapping, and you can roll them easily between your palms without crushing them and having little fragments break off in your hands.
Then, the leaves are rolled up between the palms to bruise them and initiate the process of oxidation, which is what eliminates that grassy taste in the tea.
I used the crock pot (unplugged) as a container for the leaves to ferment. I read that a ceramic bowl with a lid is ideal because it is an aerobic process, but it’s good to cover it so bugs don’t get into it. I noticed a fragrance already just a few hours later. It was a bit pungent and I was not optimistic about it at first. I continued anyway, checking on and shaking up the leaves now and then. The pungent smell went away by the end of the first day, and I started to notice a nicer tea-like scent.
I did a small batch at first to test it out. Here is a shot of the rolled leaves in the crock pot:
I forgot to write down the time when I put them in to ferment, but after about 48 hours I brewed up a small cup to test it, and I thought it was delicious so I put the leaves into the dehydrator to stop fermentation.
The leaves dried quickly, and when they were brittle I turned off the dehydrator, let the leaves cool to room temperature and then stored them in a glass jar. The instructions said to let the tea cure for 2-4 months before using it, but I enjoyed the taste right away so I guess it will just get better and better. I harvested a much larger batch this morning and plan to do more before the season ends so I have a good stash of it for wintertime. It actually works out nicely that it needs to cure, because I don’t really drink much tea in summer so it will probably just sit there and cure for the rest of the summer anyway until things start to cool off outside again.
I’m just so excited to finally have the ability to make a delicious tea from something that grows in our yard rather than being imported from another continent. It is so prolific in the wild it doesn’t require cultivation or human intervention, and all it costs is a bit of time. This stuff is a win on so many levels 🙂
I’m also very excited to try using this as a base for different herbal tea blends. As an experiment I added some dried meadowsweet flowers and did a taste test, and it was lovely. I did another test with some dried red clover and that was also very nice. I have finally found the key ingredient that my previous attempts at herbal teas were missing, so now I feel optimistic that I’ll be able to make all kinds of interesting herbal tea blends that are rich and flavourful.
If you have fireweed growing near you, and you can safely harvest it without worrying about pollution, pesticides, or pissing someone off, I highly recommend trying it!
Just make sure you are certain about identification before you gather anything from the wild, and always harvest consciously with respect and gratitude ❤