The tea plant (Camellia sinensis) gives us the entire traditional tea family (including black, oolong, pu-erh, green, yellow, and white teas). From this simple tea bush comes the second most widely enjoyed beverage in the world - tea (only water is consumed more than tea).
With a multitude of flavors and aromas and a host of wellness benefits, teas from the Camellia sinensis tea plant are becoming increasingly popular as a whole new generation of tea lovers worldwide discovers this amazing beverage.
Let's get to know more about this very special plant.
Camellia sinensis is the Latin name for the tea plant, which is an evergreen bush or small tree found in tropical and sub-tropical locations around the world.
Its dark green, elongated leaves, which range from 1/4 inch to 10 inches in length, are used to make all traditional teas - meaning black, green, pu-erh, yellow, oolong, and white teas. (The tea plant does have flowers and fruit, too, but only the leaves and young leaf shoots or buds are used to produce tea.)
The bud and first two or three leaves are preferred for tea - younger and lighter in color, they produce a finer quality tea.
If you've tasted two or three (or more) of the different teas from the tea bush, it can be difficult to believe they all come from the same plant. In fact, when tea first made its way to the Western world, tea drinkers believed black tea and green tea came from two distinct plants.
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The secret behind the different tea types was protected for many years, but now we know that Camellia sinensis is the source of the entire "true" tea family. It's what happens to the tea leaves and leaf buds after they are harvested (the processing steps) that primarily determines which tea type is created.
The tea bush flourishes in hot, humid tropical and sub-tropical climates with rich soil and plenty of sun and rain. Tea plants thrive in higher elevations, as well. Although the tea plant grows more slowly in higher altitudes, the resulting tea is high quality and very flavorful.
From China and Japan to India and Africa to parts of South America and Indonesia, tea plantations and farms can be found in many countries around the world. A commercial tea farm has even been started in Canada.
The Tea World Map below shows tea-producing countries around the world.
Two main varieties of Camellia sinensis give us the gift of tea - the Chinese tea plant (which is the "sinensis" variety) and the Assam tea plant (the "assamica" variety).
The Chinese tea plant (Camellia sinensis var. sinensis) is a hardy bush that can weather colder temperatures and drought. It is known for its long, productive lifespan - some of these bushes have been known to produce tea for 100 years or more.
The Chinese tea bush, which can grow to a height of 20 feet (6 m), was first discovered in the Yunnan province in China (that's why it's called the "Chinese" tea plant), but now it can be found in other countries, as well, such as Japan, Turkey, and Iran.
The Assam tea tree (Camellia sinensis var. assamica) isn't as hardy as the Chinese variety - it can't survive frost and drought, but it does love heavy rains and monsoon-type conditions. Left to its own devices, this tea plant variety can reach a height of 100 feet (30 m) or more. Its name tells us where it was first discovered - in Assam in northern India - but now it is cultivated in Africa and Sri Lanka, as well.
After years of natural hybridization and planned cultivated varieties (which are called "cultivars"), many hybrids of these two tea bush varieties exist. These hybrids contribute to the wide variety of tea flavors and aromas you'll find in your favorite online or local tea shop.
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It's not only the variety of Camellia sinensis that contributes to the taste of your delicious cup of tea - the tea garden or estate where the tea was produced, with its distinctive location, soil, altitude, climate, and harvest time and methods, will also place its mark on the flavor, fragrance, and quality of tea.
Tea estates (also called tea gardens, tea plantations, or tea farms) are found in tropical and sub-tropical climates on five continents. Tea gardens vary greatly in size - ranging from a few to many thousand acres, and these exotic locales grow wonderful, unique teas for tea lovers.
On tea plantations, where tea plants are cultivated for tea production, they are pruned for easier harvesting and to stimulate new growth.
Depending on the climate, some tea farms have year-round growth and harvest the tea leaves at regular intervals. Other tea estates have a specific growing season and harvest only during those months.
During harvest, skilled pickers (usually women, with their delicate, sensitive fingers) pluck the tea leaves and buds and place them in baskets or bags. In some areas, mechanical harvesting methods are used, but these tend to be less precise than hand picking, not as useful for hilly terrain, and may detrimentally affect the quality of tea.
Keep reading to learn more about the types of tea we have from Camellia sinensis, as well as how very good a cup of hot tea can be for us.
When you sip your next cup of tea, close your eyes, inhale deeply, and let your mind carry you away to the lush tea plantation in some far-off spot where the delicious brew originated. The tea plant gives us the gift of tea - grown in exotic locales and brimming with wellness benefits, this beloved brew can enhance physical and mental well-being and nurture us emotionally, too.
As Sydney Smith, English writer and clergyman, said, "Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea." Don't you agree?
Gascoyne K, Marchand F, Desharnais J, Americi H. Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2011.
Pettigrew J. The Tea Companion. London: Quintet Publishing, 2004.
Zak V. 20,000 Secrets of Tea. New York, NY: Dell Publishing, 1999.
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