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A potted history of tea

Monroe gives us a brief history of this amazing plant.

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Facts

  • Originally taken as a medicine and a ceremonial drink, tea went on to play a significant role in world trade, linking east and west. After water, tea is now the most popular drink in the world, and the British are among the world’s biggest consumers of tea.
  • There are about 3,000 different types of tea. The flavour of teas, like wines, depends on where they grow as well as the type of bush. Teas you buy are sometimes made up of different sorts blended together.
  • Most tea bushes are pruned into a fan shape with a flat-topped ‘plucking table’ at a comfortable height. This enables the pickers to pluck two very tender leaves and an unopened bud, known as the ‘tips’ – as in PG Tips. Experienced pickers, generally women, collect up to 35kg of tea a day, producing 9kg of processed black tea. In some countries tea is harvested mechanically, which produces higher quantities but the tea is of a lower quality.
  • To produce black tea for drinking, freshly plucked leaves are laid out to wilt for half an hour, then rolled, then left to ferment for four hours, then fired at high temperature to halt fermentation. When dry the tea is sifted into different grades from large leaves down to dust ready for packing. Green tea is simply rolled and dried without fermenting.
  • In Japanese legend, a Buddhist monk was said to have cut off his eyelids to prevent himself falling asleep during a seven year contemplation of Buddha. Where his eyelids fell the first tea plants grew, to help others to stay awake without resorting to such extremes.
  • Centuries ago the Chinese pressed tea dust into bricks to use as currency for trading with far-flung tribes in Mongolia and Tibet. Still used today, the tea brick is one of the oldest forms of currency.

Where it grows

Tea is thought to have originated in west China. Today it is grown in around 45 countries in the subtropics and the mountainous regions of the tropics, from sea level to over 2,000m. Most tea is grown at fairly high altitudes in a cool, moist mountain climate. The tender evergreen plants flourish in deep, rich soils, even temperatures, high humidity and with at least 1.3m of rain a year.

Common uses

The Chinese have grown tea for over 2,000 years, first using it to treat abscesses and tumours, chest inflammations and bladder ailments. They also noticed it quenched the thirst and kept them awake. As well as being a stimulant, tea is a diuretic, meaning it makes you need to wee!

Tea drinking reached Europe in the mid 17th century. It came to Britain in 1652. Some say it was used as a vegetable until it was made fashionable by Charles II and his Portuguese wife Catherine Briganza, the ‘tea-drinking queen’. China tea was the only tea known to westerners until the late 18th century, when the British discovered tea growing wild in the Assam hills of northern India. Today India exports around 200,000 tonnes of tea every year.

Tea has been said to help digestion, provide nutrients, increase antioxidant activity and help protect against cancer and heart disease, stimulate the production of beneficial enzymes, act as an aid to concentration and sooth insect bites and itchy eyes. Scientists at the National Cancer Institute in America have recommended tea as the most suitable drink for astronauts on the proposed eight-year mission to Mars. They say it may help neutralise harmful effects of space radiation.

Conservation story

It is thought that the wild relative of tea may be extinct.

Glossary

  • Bisexual: both sexes in the same flower or in some cases flowering structure (inflorescence).
  • Margin: leaf edge.

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