Wild teas and, more generally, wild beverages serve a number of purposes. First, if you are boiling water to make it safe to drink from pathogenic organisms, waiting for your water to cool down – particularly in summer – to have a cool drink can take too long for you to stay well hydrated.
So, having some flavorings for warm drinks tends to encourage people to drink more. Drinking hot or warm water is not enjoyed by many. Most people would prefer their warm water to be flavored with something. And if you don’t believe me, just think about it for a moment… It’s rare for someone to say, “I really like a cup of hot water.” Flavor is important.
Second, various wild beverages have medicinal qualities or other health benefits. These vary from supplementing your diet with Vitamin C to providing low-level analgesia or easing bronchial complaints. In this article, I share ten wild beverages which can be enjoyed in many places. They all use common and widespread species of trees and plants. Plus, all are relatively easy to identify and distinguish from other species.
Plants for wild beverages
Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) is one of Eurasia’s most widespread trees that found its way to North America, and it can now be found all over the Northeastern United States. The tree has many uses, but one of the most immediate is making tea from its needles. Pine needle tea is a classic tea of the outdoors in general and the northern forests in particular.
Pine has a good amount of Vitamin C in the needles, and as you head north to colder climes, the needles contain more Vitamin C. This is handy to know in environments where there are fewer opportunities for foraging green herbage and fruits.
Scots pine needles are grouped together in bundles of two, and this will help you differentiate between this species and other species of needled tree such as spruces, firs, and most importantly, the highly toxic English yew, Taxus baccata, all of which have single needles.
To make your pine needle tea, collect a good handful of fresh, green pine needles, chop into lengths of 0.5 inches, and steep in a mug of hot water for five minutes.
If you are heading downhill to find and collect water, keep your eye out for water mint (Mentha aquatica). Water mint loves the damp ground and will often be found on the margins of streams and ponds, as well as in water-logged patches in the woods.
A handful of water mint leaves added to a mug of hot water gives a very pleasant, refreshing flavor, which I find makes it far easier to get more fluids into my system. Mint is not an unknown flavor and, for most people, is quite welcome in the woods.
More than being a good flavor, however, there are also other benefits. Mint teas have long been known to be good for calming an upset or sore stomach as well as being good to drink to aid digestion after a meal. These qualities are all true of water mint, although it should be noted that this species does not contain as much menthol as some other mints, such as peppermint.
To make a good mug of water mint tea, collect half a dozen stems and pick off the leaves, adding them to a mug of very hot water. Leave for 5-10 minutes to steep.
Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) is a relative of the mints, also being a member of the dead-nettle family, Lamiaceae. This family contains a significant number of aromatic herbs, and ground ivy is no exception. This is a common plant in open woodlands all over North America, and it has been spread more widely by humans, partly due to its value as a medicinal plant.
An additional bonus for us is that the plant is evergreen, and you can find it to collect the leaves, even in winter. The plant has a creeping habit, trailing on the ground. It has a distinctive leaf, somewhere between heart- and kidney-shaped, resembling a horse’s hoofprint, with rounded, regular serrations around the edge of the leaf.
As with many other familiar members of this family, the leaves occur in opposite pairs, emanating from a square stem, with each leaf pair set at 90 degrees to the next. This typical Lamiaceae leaf arrangement is masked by the creeping nature of the plant – the stems are horizontal, not vertical, and the plant turns its leaves to an orientation to catch the light.
When crushed, the leaves have a distinctive somewhat “medicinal” aroma, not a million miles away from mint, but definitely not mint. This plant has long been used as a medicinal plant, and tea of ground ivy is very good for treating bronchial complaints, colds, and catarrh.
Steep a good handful in hot water. Breathing the vapors of the hot tea is also good for colds and coughs. When you don’t have a cold, however, the flavor of ground ivy may be a little too strong on its own. In this case, mix with mint.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) provides the basis for another classic tea. This plant is familiar to many and needs little introduction for most people. It is a common and widespread plant in North America, Eurasia, and northern Africa, with introductions further afield.
The leaves provide a good green vegetable, with a consistency of spinach after light boiling. Adding leaves to hot water will also produce tea, which is green and pleasant.
The best leaves to add to your mug are the smaller, top leaves. Add a good handful to the typical metal mug of the bushcrafter, or add a good few handfuls to your billy and brew for 5-10 minutes.
There are said to be a number of medicinal benefits to nettle tea, and anecdotally, I find nettle tea quite restorative after a hard day. Combining with mint and ground ivy makes for a good three-way tea too.
Wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) is another common, widespread plant in the woodlands of Northeastern United States. Growing in damp, shady places in the understorey, often, but not exclusively, associated with mossy logs.
This three-leaved plant is not easy to mistake for anything else. The nearest resemblance you will find is in some of the clovers, but these grow in meadows, not deep in the woods.
Wood sorrel contains a good amount of oxalic acid, which gives it a tart, acidic apple-peel taste when nibbled raw. When a handful of the little leaves are steeped in your mug, they take on a less sharp taste but still a refreshing one.
The fruits of brambles (Rubus fruticosus agg), blackberries, are familiar to most. They are one of the first berries many children are taught to forage, and rightly so. The berries are easy to identify, flavorsome, and packed with goodness.
The plants are common and widespread, and you will find them on just about any country walk. Earlier in the year, the young leaves can be utilized to make a tea, which has a subtle fruity flavor, hinting at the harvest yet to come later in the year.
Collect a modest handful of leaves and add to a cup of just-boiled water. Leave to steep for 10 minutes. The tea is also good medicinally if you have mouth ulcers or a sore throat.
This suggestion is a little different. Elders are a common understorey shrub and small tree of North America, Eurasia, and North Africa. Their attractive sprays of flowers in the spring make them hard to miss. These bunches of flowers later turn into bunches of small berries. At first, green, they ripen to a full and dark purple, almost black.
All parts of Elderberry (Sambucus nigra.) contain toxic glycosides which are driven off by heat. Hence, you should always cook the berries. Stewing the berries down with little water yields a pleasant cordial, not dissimilar to the British uncarbonated and carbonated soft drink, Ribena. Add some blackberries for extra sweetness. You can strain off the juice and reduce it down, adding to water for a cold or hot cordial. Try it, and you won’t regret the additional effort.
There are a number of wild roses in the United States and Europe, all of which are easily recognized. Dog Rose (Rosa canina) is the classic wild rose. You typically find them in hedgerows and on the margins of woods, as well as openings in the woods with dense undergrowth.
Dog roses have small, somewhat ragged-looking flowers in the classic rose shape, of a white to delicate pink color. The petals can be steeped for a subtle flavor. Later in the year, after the flowers have passed and the rose hips swell to a bulbous red color, we can collect these for a Vitamin C-rich tea.
After collecting the hips, you must open them and remove the hairy seeds from the middle, leaving only the flesh of the hip. This can be roughly chopped or torn into pieces and then added to hot water for steeping. Add a good palmful per cup of hot water.
So there you have it, a few easily recognizable plants that can be turned into delicious wild beverages. If you like to explore the great outdoors and you love spending time camping, I recommend giving these plants a try. Not only some of these plants can provide you with flavorful wild beverages during those cold evenings in front of the campfire, but they also have medicinal properties.
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