When people ask what I do and I tell them that I write and teach about Tea, there are a couple of common reactions.
The first is, “What’s there to know about tea? You buy the box of teabags and put hot water on them.” That reaction to my work is always humbling. In truth, we “tea” people sometimes take ourselves and this little plant a little too seriously. And it is important to me to have respect for all kinds of tea drinkers. Most of us who teach about handcrafted teas know that without the financial success of commodity teas like the major brands, farmers in countries of origin would not be able to survive.
A second common response is to incorporate all infused beverages under the umbrella of tea because of the way they are made and not because of the plant itself. So I’ll find myself fielding questions about hibiscus, yerba mate, and rooibos with little awareness of Camellia sinensis. So that’s another important aspect of talking about Tea. Because the popularity of all beverages, including coffee, share a common place in the heart of the consumer.
That being said, there are also good reasons to focus on Camellia sinensis. When I talked about tea in The Everything Healthy Tea Book, I tried to be careful to make a clear distinction between Tea, the plant from which we make the beverage tea and beverages that are made by brewing various plants and flowers.
So, Dear Readers,
May I introduce Tea. It is Camellia sinensis, similar in some ways to the flowering shrub,Camellia japonica, so often used in landscaping, But the japonica versions should not be used as a food or beverage. Even though they are not poisonous, they could cause uncomfortable gastrointestinal reactions and have no known benefits or particularly desirable flavor.
Camellia sinensis, on the other hand, is the plant from which we make all kinds of true teas; white, green, yellow, oolong, black and dark.
Two distinct characteristics are the small, white flower with large mound of yellow stamens and the serrated edges of the green leaves.
Tea is an ancient plant. When cultivated, it is most often maintained as a shrub at waist height for harvesting. In the wild, the shrub matures into a tall tree that can live for more than a thousand years. And, for thousands of years – long before written history – tea was one of the plants used for both food and medicine. To be specific, Camellia sinensis, the true tea plant. We now know from archaeological evidence that variations of this plant were indigenous to both southwestern China and northeastern India. (Though there was not the rich history of cultivation and commerce in India that there was in China.)
Anyone plucking and chewing on a fresh leaf would have experienced an unpleasant taste but then, quite likely, a feeling of invigoration and perhaps relief from some unpleasant health issue. We can imagine that discoveries of the medicinal properties would have earned it a place in the herbal first-aid basket for a tribal healer. But it would have been one of many. Unwritten recipes for concoctions may have developed as “blends”. Though, it is less likely, I believe, that the flavor would have been given priority over the healthful benefits.
Mike Fritts of Golden Feather Tea introduces us to his Northern California tea farm.