"I actually started praying to God, 'Please, I want to study this,' " recalls Shaughnessy, now 63.
So she did, and by the time she retired from her more-than-full-time job in 2005, she had already embraced a new life purpose: "to let people know how important plants are in keeping up the mind, body, and spirit."
And that includes turning hot water into something magical: herbal tea, which, to Shaughnessy's delight, is equal parts olfactory and taste treat, one that intensifies if she uses fresh or dried herbs from her own garden in Atco.
Technically, herbal tea isn't "tea" at all. It's an infusion of leaves, roots, bark, seeds, or flowers from plants other than Camellia sinensis, known as "the tea plant," whose leaves are the mainstay of green, black, white, and oolong teas.
Interest in teas of all kinds is growing fast in the United States. The number of tea shops here has grown from 200 a decade ago to 4,000 today, according to the American Herbal Products Association, which represents companies that sell herbs and herbal products, such as dietary supplements and tea.
Fully 85 percent of what's drunk here is iced; 80 percent of that is black tea. But according to a 2014 Amadee + Company market research report on the global tea market, herbals are coming on strong: The black tea segment is growing at 3.9 percent annually; green tea at 11 percent, and herbal tea at more than 15 percent a year.
Alexis Siemons, a Philadelphia tea consultant, suggests that the rapid growth in herbal (and fruit) teas in this country is the result of Americans' looking to avoid coffee and caffeine; find alternatives to sugary juices, sodas, and carbonated beverages; and enjoy "natural" drinks with health benefits.
"And herbs are something we can actually grow ourselves," Siemons says.
Shaughnessy's favorite tea is hyper-minty, made from wild mountain mint, peppermint, "mint julep mint," and chocolate mint. It zings!
She also likes a floral, fruity blend: lemongrass, lemon balm, cinnamon, fresh ginger and rose hips that warms the throat, especially when adding honey, dried lemon or orange peel.
Two more faves: lavender tea, whose earthy vapors twirl up the nostrils, and lemon rose pelargonium tea, a pale, mild-tasting brew with just a hint of fruit and flower. (Pelargoniums are scented geraniums.)
Shaughnessy grows all these ingredients except the ginger, dried fruit, and cinnamon, and happily calls herself a "tea addict." Ironic, given that her only exposure to tea growing up was hot black tea when she was sick and iced tea in summer.
Nowadays, Shaughnessy blends her own herbals guided by taste, intuition, her aromatherapist's training, and one standard formula: Three teaspoons fresh herbs, or one teaspoon dried, equals one cup of tea.
Here's her drying method: Harvest herbs after morning dew dries. Gather stems with a rubber band attached to a paper clip. Clip bundles, upside down, on a hanger inside a closet that's dry, cool, and dark.
In one to three weeks, when the herbs are dried, store in glass jars. "There can't be any dampness or you'll get mildew," says Shaughnessy, who uses loose dried leaves or baglike tea "sachets" made from tea filters. She also buys dried organic herbs in bulk from Mountain Rose Herbs in Eugene, Ore. (mountainroseherbs.com), or at Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and farmer's markets.
Shaughnessy's enthusiasm for herbal teas and aromatherapy's essential oils does not translate into rejection of Western medicine. But she's a strong believer in the therapeutic properties of herbs and herbal teas, things like ginger for motion sickness; chamomile and lemon balm for digestion and better sleep; lavender, mint, and rosemary for headache.
She believes herbs can elevate mood, bring down blood pressure, bolster the immune system, and help with a wide range of ailments, including her painful arthritic shoulder, which she recently massaged with an oil infused with peppermint and rosemary.
"My shoulder is much better," she says.
Dried Lemon Spice Herb Tea Blend
Makes about 70 cups of tea
1 cup fresh lemon verbena, coarsely chopped
1 cup fresh lemon basil or sweet basil, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup lemongrass pieces
1 tablespoon coarsely ground bay leaves
3 teaspoons dried ginger pieces
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1. Make sure all ingredients are dry before combining and storing in airtight container. Drying times depend on humidity and other factors, but typically range from one to three weeks.
2. Use 1 teaspoon herb blend per 8-ounce cup of hot water. Good suggests crushing the dried herbs as you add them to release flavor.
3. Using a tea ball or loose tea that can be strained out, steep 3 to 5 minutes for light flavor, 10 to 15 minutes for stronger flavor.
- From aromatherapist Joan Good
Lavender Herbal Tea
Makes 1 cup of tea
1 cup water
1 tablespoon fresh or 1 teaspoon dried lavender flower buds
1. If using dried flower buds, crush them before pouring hot water over them. Steep 3 to 5 minutes. Steeping for a shorter time will produce a more delicate flavor.
- From aromatherapist Joan Good
Note: Uses fresh or dried herbs.
Variations: Add 1/2 teaspoon orange zest, 1/3-inch piece vanilla bean, or a sprig of mint.
Elaine Shaughnessy will host Herbal Tea Gardens-Therapeutic Teas from the Garden May 13 at 7 p.m. at the Carmen Tilelli Community Center, 820 Mercer St., Cherry Hill. The event is free and open to the public.