In the British mystery novels with which I beguile my free time, the shaken person who discovers the corpse often is offered a bracing cup of tea to calm his or her nerves. Obviously the English think that a cuppa can solve almost anything. Maybe they aren't so wrong at that!

The Price of Tea In—and Outside—of China

According to Chinese tradition, hot tea originated around 2727 BC with a mythical emperor/god named Shen Nung who had a hobby of trying out the medicinal effectiveness of different plants. He also is supposed to have died from sampling the wrong one, thus paying a high price for his herbal knowledge.

Much later, that rogue of plant explorers, Robert Fortune, would steal tea plants and the secrets of processing their foliage from China. The British then could grow the leaves—which had by then become a national necessity for them—in India, one of their possessions at the time. Before that, though, rebellious colonists elsewhere would dump more than 300 chests of tea into Boston Harbor.

Although few things feel as safe or comforting as a cup of hot tea, use of the term "tempest in a teapot' to refer to a minor "squall" may be misleading, as the drink has caused major political hurricanes in its time. Not to mention all the poisons that get dropped into it in those British mysteries!

tea kettle

Discovering My Cup of Tea

Despite all that, I regret I didn't discover tea earlier. Having been raised on a dairy farm, I drank milk with my meals while growing up and continued to do so into adulthood. Therefore, I never learned to consume hot beverages except cocoa back then. That didn’t make me popular at the sort of social events where one is offered either coffee or tea. I would politely decline both, forcing the poor hostess to try to come up with an alternative for me.

Eventually, however, I concluded that I was becoming a bit sensitive to milk and decided to cut back on it. I suspect I also was trying to lose weight at the time and read somewhere that the caffeine in tea would raise my metabolism.

Finding plain tea too plain for my tastes, I settled happily on chai—black tea flavored with a variety of spices good both for digestive health and health in general. I usually drink it at lunch time, to help keep me alert throughout the afternoon, and consume an herbal tea reputed to relieve sinus problems with supper.

The latter contains mints, nettle, and a few other herbs, many of which do triple duty by relieving the symptoms of my chronic allergies, assisting with digestion, and having a calming effect appropriate for evening. On days when I especially need to be sharp in the morning, I brew the South American tea known as yerba mate, which is higher in caffeine than black tea, but lower than coffee.

mint tea with lemon and ginger

Tea and Sympathy from Herbs

I've also drunk turmeric and ginger tea with honey and lemon juice to soothe a sore throat and found it to be tasty as well as effective. You, too, can devise a schedule for your steaming brews which is aimed at your own particular needs and health issues.

I would recommend that you experiment until you find teas you really, really like, since any aversion to what is good for you could negate its positive effect. Although it's tempting to drink a cuppa right before bedtime, tea itself and many herbs used to make tisanes have a diuretic (urine increasing) effect. That does help drain off excess fluid from your body, but it also could interrupt your sleep by forcing you to visit the inappropriately named restroom too frequently.

As Micahel Castleman points out in The Healing Herbs, tea itself actually is an herb, though we don’t often think of it that way. It comes from a camellia (Camellia sinensis), with green tea being the type which preserves its original color, black tea the type which has been partially crushed to induce oxidation. Castleman calls the ancient drink the “world’s most popular healer,” since it long has been used to relieve such afflictions as respiratory problems, diarrhea, and daytime drowsiness, as well as helping stave off viruses and cancers.

Camellia sinensis

Reading Tea's Leanings

You even can grow your own tea plant, like the one pictured above, outdoors in USDA zones 7 through 9—probably in higher zones too, though those may be a little hotter than what tea prefers. In zones lower than 7, you’ll want to keep the plant in a pot and bring it indoors over the winter, to a cool and preferably humid location with bright, indirect light.

I’ve found that the best way to germinate camellia seeds is to crack their coats lightly with a nut cracker before I plant them, being careful not to damage the insides of those seeds. I then soak them overnight before sowing them about 1/2 inch deep and keeping their pot in a warm location until they sprout. (For me, that took about 25 days, though those particular camellias weren't the tea type.)

And, of course, almost all of us can grow tea herbs such as chamomile, mints, lemon balm, etc., in our gardens. Back in my milk days, if the March Hare had invited me to "Take some more tea," I may well have responded as irritably as Alice did. These days, I'd probably say, "I don't mind if I do!"


Photos: The Camellia sinensis photo is by tyler70006 from the Dave Garden's PlantFiles. The other photos are stock images.