What's Healthy About Tea? - Camellia sinensis, True Tea

Rewriting the book, "The Everything Healthy Tea Book"

Camellia sinensis is a species of evergreen shrub or small tree whose leaves and leaf buds are used to produce tea. It is of the genus Camellia(Chinese: 茶花; pinyin: Cháhuā, literally: “tea flower”) of flowering plants in the family Theaceae. Common names include “tea plant”, “tea shrub”, and “tea tree”       (from Wikipedia)

Camellia sinensis var. sinensis  and  Camellia sinensis var. assamica are the two sub varietals from which all kinds of true tea are made. This includes the basic green and black.

Huangtian, China:  Woman using a simple tea picking machine to reduce the amount of labor and increase the amount of tea she can harvest. It is a simple clipper with a bag attached to collect the new, green shoots.

(Edited & Updated from The Everything Healthy Tea Book, page 15-16)

It is often shocking during introductory conversations about hand-crafted, artisan teas to learn how little we actually use of the plant. In the original text, I wish I had made this point more emphatically. Even though Camellia sinensis is an evergreen with beautiful leaves covering both bushes and trees year-round, the only leaves harvested for tea are the tender, new shoots. We refer to this as a “flush”. And, depending the climate, a tea bush may flush two times per year (high elevations with short growing seasons) or as often as once a month in tropical, equatorial climates. So, the photos we see of beautiful and expansive fields covered with green tea plants can be deceptive if you assume that more of the plant is harvested and processed into tea.

Golden Feather Tea Leaves

Mike Fritts, owner of Golden Feather Tea in Northern California holds up a single set of freshly plucked new leaves.

It is also important to realize that Camellia sinensis would grow naturally into a tree – perhaps taller than a four-story building. The cultivated fields allow for the new flush of leaves to be easily plucked while new leaves in the tall trees are plucked by workers who climb into the branches. In the wild, the trees allowed to naturalize to their full height can live more than a thousand years. In some tea-producing cultures the spirit of these ancient trees are highly respected. Camellia sinensis on farms that restrain and control natural growth do not have as long a lifespan; perhaps only a few hundred years or less.

I’m often asked if there is any difference in the healthfulness of tea grown in the wild on unrestrained trees and that grown on farms with the plants trimmed to waist-high shrubs. Certainly, there are theories and folklore to suggest that the naturalized plant offers more benefits, but I would recommend the work of  Selena Ahmed, PhD.    Her work discusses the possibility that naturalized tea is not only healthier but might also be more sustainable and better able to withstand impending climate change.     More About Dr. Selena Ahmed.

One other large difference is between tea grown on large plantations and that grown on smaller family farms is that on smaller farms, tea plants grow with other crops. Sometimes these are flowering and aromatic. Other times they are vegetables for food. In one area of Eastern China I visited a tea-growing community that divided their fields between tea and bamboo. There were many benefits that the bamboo offered the tea, wind breaks and some shading. But it also supported the community financially with more year-round work. Not just the limited seasons of tea. But many of the farmers there felt that it also improved the flavor of their tea.

Of course, large, corporate farms that use more mechanized methods to harvest, makes tea more available and affordable. In many cases, farms allocate a certain percentage of their land to commodity, mechanically cut tea while saving a smaller area to produce the finer quality leaves. We recognize the importance of this relationship in the world of tea. It can be said that we would not have the incredible number of fine teas if not for the big corporations.

(From Wikipedia)

Tea Bud.jpg
Camellia sinensis foliage
Scientific classificatione
Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Eudicots
Clade: Asterids
Order: Ericales
Family: Theaceae
Genus: Camellia
Species: C. sinensis
Binomial name
Camellia sinensis
(L.) Kuntze

Theaceae is a family of flowering plants, composed of shrubs and trees, including the camellias. It can be described as having from seven to 40 genera, depending on the source and the method of circumscription used. The family Ternstroemiaceae has been included within Theaceae; however, the APG III system of 2009 places it instead in Pentaphylacaceae.

Thea sinensis

In the mid 1753’s, the tea plant was known as Thea sinensis. The famous botanist, Carl Linneaus, originally named the plant in the family of Theaceae. It was not until 1818 that that Robert Sweet shifted it to the genus, Camellia, further specifying and focusing on the specific plants from which we harvest what we are calling True Tea. Camellia sinensis.

Camellia sinensis var. sinensis

Camellia sinensis var. assamica

Camellia sinensis var. talensis