If you have spent even a little time wandering lower and mid-elevation trails in the Pacific Northwest, you’ve seen vanilla leaf (Achlys triphylla), a common native plant that can grow in lush, luxuriant carpets of jaunty green on the forest floor.
Now is the time to collect some. As snow melts in the mountains, the woods awaken from their winter slumbers and begin to stir with energized green shoots of all kinds. Sometimes the forest floor looks like it has a bad case of bed-head after the snowmelt, all matted and olive drab. But fast-growing greenery like vanilla leaf brings a sense of alert vitality back to the woods, a vitality that I try to incorporate myself this time of year.
When you find a good dense patch, it doesn’t take long to collect enough for a year’s supply of tea. Just grab the young leaves in bunches and snip the stalks with kitchen shears. When you get home, you can trim the rest of the stem if you prefer. The other day I filled a couple garbage bags, most of it for Jeremy Faber over at Foraged and Found Edibles. He uses the vanilla leaf in several wild tea mixes that he sells at Seattle farmers markets. Jeremy had a good laugh when I told him I averaged about 45 minutes to an hour per bag; he picks the stuff about three times as fast. And I must have cut myself in at least three places with the scissors. Good thing I don’t usually forage for pay!
Native Americans used vanilla leaf as an insect repellent and to perfume their homes. Once in the dehydrator, the plant’s common name rings true: the room fills with the slightly sweet and calming aroma of vanilla. As a tea, it has the same affect. Vanilla leaf tea is not like stinging nettle tea—it doesn’t announce itself loudly at the door as a nutrient-laden heal-all with punch. It’s more laid back, with a reserved herbally essence that’s mellowed by the hint of vanilla. Really, it’s a wonderfully soothing tea, like a chamomile. You can adjust the flavor to suit your own taste by mixing in other wild ingredients such as rose hips.