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Camellia's Secret: Multiple Teas from a Single Species

World Map of Tea Production and Consumption

(1970s Map | 📸 J.G. Bartholomew - Wikimedia)

When buying a tea plant, most people are quite surprised to find that they are actually purchasing a camellia. All teas (green, Oolong, black, Chai, Matcha) have at their core the cured or oxidized leaves of a singular species, Camellia sinensis, which also has two subspecies, var. sinensis (small leaves) and the larger-leaved var. assamica.

Tea camellia is an evergreen shrub or small tree native to southeast Asia but is now grown commercially in such far-flung countries as Turkey, Vietnam, Kenya, Peru, Russia, Papua New Guinea, and El Salvador. Even this continent has a smattering of tea plantations found in South Carolina and here in Canada as represented by the Westholme Tea Company in Duncan BC.

(📸 CIAT - Wikimedia | 📸 Prenn - Wikipedia)

Given the worldwide cultural impact that this singular plant species has had over the centuries, I thought that I would provide an overview of its history, use, and culture.

History and Culture

Samovar
(Samovar - The Merchant's Wife)
The brewing of tea is reputed to have been discovered in Sichuan China. Legend has it that Emperor Shen Nung (or Shennong) chanced upon it in 2737 BC when some Camellia leaves accidentally blew into water that he was boiling.

Tea was introduced to Japan in the 8th century by Buddhist monks and was largely used for religious purposes that would eventually be transformed into a welcoming ceremony.

First contact with the west began around 1567 when travelling Cossacks brought  tea back to Russia, and by the 17th century it had become a much-loved staple, so much so that the "coffee maker" of tea, the Samovar, was invented there.

By the early 1600s both Dutch and Portuguese traders had introduced tea to the rest of Europe, with it first being served in England in a London coffee house in 1657.

Worldwide tea commerce and the subsequent taxes and trade imbalances it created would eventually be responsible for the Opium wars and the infamous Boston Tea Party on December 16th, 1773.

Types of Brewed Tea

Different Types of Teas
(Green, Yellow, Oolong, & Black Tea | 📸 Haneburger - Wikimedia)
Standard teas made solely from the leaves of Camellia sinensis are processed differently to achieve their colour and include
  • White (wilted and unoxidized),
  • Yellow (unwilted & unoxidized, but allowed to yellow),
  • Green (unwilted & unoxidized),
  • Oolong (wilted, bruised & partially oxidized), and
  • Black (wilted, often crushed and fully oxidized).

Chai

Chai Tea
(Chai | 📸 Miansari66 - Wikimedia)
Indian Chai is a hot spiced tea with cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, ginger, and black pepper, served with plenty of milk and sugar.

Matcha

Matcha Tea
(Matcha Tea | 📸 @vasiliybudarinphotos)
Matcha is made from green tea powder and has a slightly bitter, vegetal flavour but is very high in antioxidants.

Persian Tea

Persian Tea
(Iranian Tea | 📸 PersianFoodTours.Com - Wikimedia)
Persian tea is presented in small glasses with copious amounts of sugar and brewed from loose black tea leaves.

How to Grow a Tea Plant

This broadleaf evergreen is hardy to USDA zone 7 and easily held to 6’ tall by 4’ wide with light pruning, which should be done in early spring after flowering.
While Camellia sinensis grows equally well in ground or in a container (shelter these during freezing periods), it prefers a partially shaded site (avoid afternoon sun) with shelter from cold winter winds.
The rich soil should be acidic (below pH6) and well-drained with even moisture and the roots should be mulched for winter.
Fertilize once a year with a Rhododendron fertilizer in April and expect small white (or pale pink) fragrant flowers from October to December with prominent yellow stamens that will attract the Anna’s hummingbirds.

Tea Cultivars to Choose From

Tea plants can be difficult to find due to limited wholesale production, but the following cultivars are occasionally available locally.

‘Sochi Seedling’

‘Sochi Seedling’ - Camellia Plant

This flavourful cultivar hails from Sochi Russia, the most northern commercial growing area in the world.

‘Tea Breeze’

A very cold-hardy (zone 6) variety introduced locally by well-known plantsman Pierre Piroche, who passed away recently.

‘Korean Tea Seedling’

A hardy and very productive cultivar selected from the mountains of Korea’s Boseong region.

‘Blushing Maiden’

‘Blushing Maiden’ - Camellia Plant

This hardier form of ‘Rosea’ bearing pale pink blooms is very beautiful, but not quite as vigorous as ‘Tea Breeze’.

‘Karatum’

Another cultivar from the Sochi Russia region with good vigor and an upright form.

How to Make Your Own Green Tea

Step 1: When and What to Pick

Tea leaves are traditionally harvested during the spring flush, although new foliage can also be harvested in early summer and fall. Purists only pick the top two leaves and bud, although you have the option of harvesting the tender leaves just below to increase your yield.

Step 2: Allow Your Leaves to Dry Naturally

Spread the harvested leaves and buds in a single layer over a clean drying mat. Place in the shade for 2-3 hours to allow the leaves to wilt. This step reduces water content and improves the flavour.

Step 3: Mild Heat Treatment

Also know as shaqing, this can be done by placing the wilted leaves into a wok or frying pan over a low heat. You are essentially "dry roasting" to enrich flavour and prevent further oxidization. You are looking to remove 30-40% of the remaining moisture without allowing the leaves to get crispy.

Step 4: Hand Rolling

Hand-Rolling Tea Leaves

Dry roasted leaves can be rolled hot or cold, with the simplest method being just rolling them into an elongated cigar shape using the palms of your hands. Rolled leaves are better for brewing and can used fresh or preserved for future use by drying in an oven set at 120 for a further twenty minutes, allowed to cool, and then stored in an airtight jar kept out of natural light.

Step 5: Brewing Fresh Tea

Tea

Your homemade green tea may not be as strong as store-bought, so sample it from time to time while it is steeping.

All images Copyright 2024 MK Lascelle except those already credited

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