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Camellia sinensis: January is hot tea month!

By Carrie Lamont (carrielamontJanuary 13, 2012

January is the perfect month to celebrate hot tea! By January, the chill has really started to settle into our bones here in New England (and parts of the world that experience cold winters). Hot tea is the perfect antidote for the inevitable sore throats and icy feet. So lift your mug of chai, green tea, Irish Breakfast or an herbal concoction from your own garden in salute to Camellia sinensis!

Gardening picture

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 ritutea gardens at Assamal 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. .1632 Japanese tea ceremony depiction

 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 BigelowNext 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!



  About Carrie Lamont  
Carrie LamontCarrie clicks on every link. She has been married for fourteen delightful years and has two beautiful daughters who are nearly grown-ups. Her husband retired in October (from America's favorite airline) with enough travel benefits to fly Carrie nearly anywhere she wants to go. She lived in Texas for 2012-2014, but has just moved back to New England where she feels most at home. Carrie has a masters degree in Music, and hums to herself as she gardens. Follow her on Google.

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