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camellia sinensis (58K)


Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (China tea).
Camellia sinensis var. assamica (Assam tea, Indian tea)

Theaceae, the tea family


Tea is an evergreen shrub that can grow up to 17m high, but is usually kept low in cultivation to facilitate easier picking. There are two main varieties, Chinese tea (Camellia sinensis var sinensis) and Assam tea (Camellia sinensis var assamica. The Chinese tea has smaller, harder leaves with toothed margins and is strongly aromatic. Assam tea has larger and softer leaves.

Prominent white flowers usually occur singly and produce a seed capsule with three compartments, each containing a single, oily seed.

Habitat and Distribution

The geographical origins of tea are uncertain and it is not known whether any truly wild populations still exist. Camellia sinensis var. sinensis is thought to be native to western Yunnan, while Assam tea is native to Assam (India), Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and southern China.

Tea is tolerant of a wide range of climatic conditions, from temperate dry to wet or tropical very dry to moist conditions. It thrives at temperature between 14C - 27C. It does not tolerate frost and temperatures should not fall below 13C or exceed 30C. In the tropics it can grow up to an altitude of 2000m.


Tea is mostly grown in plantations from seeds or cuttings, or as ornamentals. It is almost completely self-sterile and relies on cross pollination by insects. Hybridization occurs freely.


Pu Erh TeaConsidering the omnipresence of tea in cultures all over the world, it comes as a surprise that it only achieved its categorical status quite recently, especially in the western world. Tea has been known in China for approx 4000 years and was used not only as a beverage, but also as medicine, it was chewed as a pick-me-up and even prepared as a pickle.

According to Chinese legend tea was first used as a drink by the mythical emperor Shen Hung in about 2737 BC, but the first written record appears in 350BC in an ancient Chinese dictionary.

Another story traces the origins of the tea plant to the eyelids of Prince Bodhidharma, who had converted to Buddhism in the 6th century. He believed that it was his duty to constantly remain awake and in prayer. At one point he could no longer fight back sleep. When he awoke and realized that he had succumbed to slumber he was so disgusted that he cut off his eyelids and threw them away. From these, it is said, the first tea plants grew. From then on he chewed the rolled up leaves to stay awake.

It is thought that tea has been cultivated in China from about 200BC. By 650AD its cultivation was well established all over China. It had already spread to Japan by 600AD with travelling Buddhist monks who had brought it back with them upon returning home from their studies in China. During the 8th and 9th Century it was used ceremonially in monasteries to help monks stay awake and mindful during their long hours of prayers and meditation.

tea ceremony (94K)The most elaborate tea ceremonies developed in Japan, where each and every movement is prescribed by ritual. It is perhaps the most intricate ritual associated with any food or drink.

The use of tea as a refreshing beverage quickly became popular throughout south-east Asia. Europeans first came into contact with it during the 17th Century as trade began with China. Apparently it was the wife of King Charles II, the Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza who first popularized tea as a drink at court and high society, since she had grown up with it.

The habit of 'taking tea' quickly became popular among the upper classes and the imports of the Dutch and East India Company soared. However, the company's monopoly and high taxes kept the habit a privilege of the rich for about 100 years. But the high prices inspired illicit enterprise as there were many more people who wanted to partake of the beverage than actually could afford the habit at official market rates. As soon as shipments arrived in England smugglers sold as much as they could get their hands on, on the black market. Only a drastic cut in taxes put an end to this practice in 1784.

Boston Tea Party (121K)But prior to this, the East India Company had accumulated such a surplus due to the fact that smugglers were selling tea far more cheaply, that it asked the government for permission to export tea directly to America. The government thought this a fine idea, especially since it provided an opportunity to stock up empty coffers which had been depleted in the Napoleonic wars by imposing a small tax of 3d on each pound of tea sold in the American colonies. The colonists, however, did not think this a very fine idea at all. They so vehemently objected to being taxed by the crown that a mutiny started in Boston when a mob of outraged citizens destroyed a shipment of tea and sank it in Boston harbour in 1773. And, as they say, the rest is history.

While Americans freed themselves of the yoke of the crown and soon enjoyed free trade with China (thus getting their tea a great deal more cheaply), British people continued to be fleeced by the merchant-thieves. Trying to uphold its monopoly the East India Company kept prices ridiculously and artificially high to maximize profits. In 1824 an anonymous writer stated that 'the lordly grocers of Leadenhall Street [where the Company was based] have most scandalously abused the monopoly of which they are now in possession' and calculated that the prices of tea sold at auction in London compared with the prices at auction in Hamburg and New York, 'the monopoly of the tea trade enjoyed by the East India Company costs the people of this country, on average, not less than TWO MILLIONS TWO HUNDRED THOUSAND pounds sterling a year!'

Amazingly even a drink as innocuous as tea should have attracted passionate campaigns against its use by the moral zealots of the day. While high prices had long kept tea drinking a social privilege of the rich, smugglers undermined that position and made tea affordable to the masses. And therein lay the moral problem for those who deemed that drinking tea should not be encouraged among the lower classes. In their view...

'the practice of tea-drinking in the afternoon among working class women meant that they were 'neglecting their spinning knitting etc spending what their husbands are labouring hard for, their children are in rags, gnawing a brown crust, while these gossips are canvassing over the affairs of the whole town, making free with the good name and reputation of their superiors.'

And that it encouraged 'these artful husseys' to drink spirits and to complain about their husbands'.

In other words, the social habits of the poor (and in particular, of women) must be controlled to protect the interests of the rich.

These moral tirades did little to restrain consumption - quite the opposite. Tea became the most popular drink in Britain and is considered by many an essential part of civilization, or even 'one of the most basic necessities in life'.

Assam tea was 'discovered' in the early 19th Century when it was noticed that the people of Assam drank something that tasted like Chinese tea. The plant was positively identified as Camellia sinensis var assamica in 1834. However, Assam tea was not very good compared to Chinese tea and so it took another figure to play his role in the history of tea to set India on its course of eventually becoming the biggest producer of tea in the world.

Robert Fortune (11K)The Chinese had been very careful to keep their British and Dutch trading partners in the dark about the origins of this plant and its cultivation. Foreigners were not permitted to visit the plantations in the interior. But almost as soon as the ink had dried on the treaty of Nanking in 1842, the Horticultural Society sent young Robert Fortune, then superintendent of the hothouse department at Chiswick Garden, to collect plants in China. It may not be a small coincidence that the person who most passionately supported the mission was a former tea inspector of the East India Company. In the course of Robert Fortunes travels he not only found out that green and black tea came from the same plant, learnt the secrets of tea cultivation and observed various methods of curing it, he also managed to take several seeds out of China, which greatly improved the burgeoning plantations in India.

By the early 19th Century people were starting to become uneasy with the changing role of the East India Company, whose charter permitted them to use military force where necessary to defend their trading posts (!). But when its lease on trade with China ran out, it started to wield its military might in India, effectively ruling large parts of the country from their offices in London.

Voices grew stronger that the company should decide to either act as tea merchants or administrators. In 1834 a new charter was drawn up for the company and they relinquished their merchant activities all together. Their ulterior motive of course was to grow tea in India and maintain complete control of production and to dominate India politically. Now that they could no longer make money from importing tea to Britain, the company shifted its attention to the people of India as a source of income by levying taxes against them. Needless to say, Indians did not like it and by 1857 a revolt was started by three Indian legions that were serving in the company's army. A bloody and terrible civil war ensued which lasted over a year. Eventually the British government stepped in and took over all holdings of the East India Company in India and assumed administration.

Would-be planters were invited and given generous leases of land to turn into plantations and that was the start of what still is one of India's largest export businesses - albeit one of its most exploitative. A typical plantation worker earns no more that $1 per day - not enough to live on, even in India.

tea plantation(137K)Recently people have become more concerned with the fair treatment of the workers that produce our luxury goods such as tea, coffee and chocolate and there are now many initiatives that buy directly and are thus able to pay a better price - how much of this really trickles down to the workers is another question. Plantation workers still suffer under the yoke of our addiction to luxury goods as competition of the 'free market' and over production keeps prices low and even though consumers are willing to pay a bit more for fair trade goods, sellers must still stay competitive.

The varieties of tea available on super market shelves are truly staggering. There are countless varieties of black teas, flavoured teas, green teas, and more. Their differences depend to some extend on specific varieties and regions where they were grown as well as the methods employed to cure the raw plant material after it is picked.

Green tea
is totally unoxidized. To stop enzymatic oxidizing process the freshly picked leaves are steamed and then hand rolled and dried. It contains less caffeine, but more polyphenols, which have anti-oxidant properties and are responsible for many of the health claims that are made for green tea.
Black Tea
is wilted and fermented before it is dried. It is usually blended from many different types of teas from different areas, and sometimes it is also flavoured. Earl Grey Tea derives its characteristic flavour from being aromatised with Monardia oil.
Oolong Tea
is partially fermented before it is dried and its flavour is somewhere midway between green and black tea.
White Tea
usually derives from the leaf buds and leaves of the Da Bai (Big White) tea variety. It is completely unprocessed. The freshly picked leaf buds and leaves are merely dried.
Pu Erh Tea
is a specially fermented green tea from Yunnan. It is aged up to 50 years in temperature and humidity controlled conditions. (There is also an artificial method to produce Pu Erh which only takes a few weeks)
Lapsang Souchong,
which arguably has the strongest flavour of all varieties, gains its smoky taste literally by being smoked over pine wood fires while drying.

Medicinal Uses:

oolong (46K)Traditionally tea has been regarded as an elixir of life: it lifts the spirits, gently stimulates and yet promotes harmony and relaxation. Tea contains caffeine (but only about half of what is found in coffee) and polyphenols called catechins, which have a cancer protective effect. Green tea is especially rich in these compounds. The fermentation process used to make black tea changes these simple compounds into the more complex theaflavins and thearubigins.

Neither Black nor Green tea is used in herbal medicine, however, a moderate amount of tea, especially green tea, taken every day can have a beneficial effect on the body. Although further research is needed, several studies have been conducted which indicate that a moderate amount of tea (esp. green tea) protects the body against several different types of cancer, such as lung, ovarian, breast, prostate and stomach cancer. It has also been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties and to have a beneficial effect on the cardio vascular system. Green tea is antithrombotic and lowers cholesterol, thus protecting the cardio vascular system from several degenerative causes. Even after a heart attack has occurred green tea can help to minimize cell damage and speed recovery. Green tea is said to have antiviral and antibacterial properties.

Unique among health claims made for green tea is its reputation to protect against tooth decay.

An extract green tea leaves has been found to have UV protective properties and is becoming popular as an ingredient in skin care products.

Other uses:

Steam distillation of Black Tea yields and essential oils which is used as a flavor in alcoholic beverages, frozen dairy desserts, candy, baked goods, gelatins, and puddings (Leung, 1980)

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