Chamomile, mint, or lemongrass tea and the herbal concoction previously mentioned aren't really tea. You see, tea is the common name for a species, Camellia sinensis, Camellia because it is now recognized to be part of the Camellia family, and sinensis because it was originally believed to grow only in China. In the middle of the 19th century, European botanists realized what natives of the Indian sub-continent had known all along: C. sinensis var. assamica grows very well in India too! Unfortunately maté and rooibos are also not teas. All non-C. sinensis beverages are tisanes or infusions.
Tea grows in climates warmer than zone 8. It requires 50 inches of rainfall or more per year. As a crop, it has been exported from China to Japan, Africa, Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and of course India; the original C. sinensis was hybridized with the Indian variety as soon as the English realized it was possible. World-wide, there is only one beverage more popular than tea—water. Nearly every culture that has been exposed to tea has its own ceremony and ritual surrounding it. Think of Russian samovars, Zen tea gardens or of course British cream teas.
Like camellias, tea plants prefer a slightly acidic soil. Only the top two leaves and the bud are harvested, preferably by hand. In some places, the plants can be harvested every 7-14 days. Camellias are perennials, and C. sinensis can eventually grow to be 50 feet high in the wild. However, cultivated ones, which grow in "tea gardens," are usually kept pruned to waist-height for ease in harvesting.
In 600 AD the Chinese added a character for tea to the approximately 80,000 characters used in Chinese calligraphy. While the character stayed the same, it is pronounced differently in different Chinese dialects. Never-the-less, almost all words for tea the world over come from one of the two main Chinese pronunciations, those that begin with a hard T, t'u or tay or tea or thé, and those that start with some version of ch, cha, chai, shay, etc. .
Talking about tea starts to sound like a conversation with a wine connoisseur, with terms like "bright," "earthy," "fruity" and "muscatel." Follow this link to an interesting glossary of tea terms from Bigelow. Next time you sip your mug of hot tea, see if it tastes flowery or brisk, dark or pale.
Drinking tea has many alleged health benefits, from greater mental acumen to healthier teeth. There are over 700 chemicals in tea leaves, many of which are already known to be beneficial. Tea is bursting with anti-oxidants and healthful flavinoids. Study after study has shown tea to be protective against Parkinson's disease, effective at lowering blood pressure, or helpful with losing weight. Unfortunately, the studies have not been the double-blind predictive type needed for doctors and scientists to say "go start drinking more tea!" Someday maybe that will happen. But for now, it couldn't hurt to have a cuppa now and then.
So even if you can't enjoy a Camellia's blooms this month, you can enjoy its leaves. January, hot tea month, is your perfect opportunity to investigate one of the new types of tea on the market, be it chai or white, green or yellow. After all I've learned, I'm going to be taste-testing for sure!
ALL MEDIA IS IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN, THANKFULLY.