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The Wonders of Tea
It's been called the plant of Heaven.
For 4,000 years, it's been valued both as a medicine and a drink for pleasure.
Originally, tea referred to one species of shrub that was cultivated in ChinaCamellia sinensisknown as the black tea shrub.
A charming legend tells how this ordinary plant became the first natural wonder in the world of herbal teas.
The story takes us back to ancient China in 2737 b.c. when one day, Emperor Shen Nung was kneeling before a fire, heating water. Suddenly a wind stirred. Leaves fluttered down from a branch over his head and fell into the boiling water. The aroma captivated Shen Nung and he decided to taste the brew.
Where did these aromatic leaves come from? An ancient wild species of the black tea shrub. When the leaves are fermented, they produce oolong or black tea, but when they are brewed fresh, as in Shen Nung's tea, they yield the refreshing green tea, which contains the potent antioxidant catechin, a bioflavenoid with antibacterial and anticancer properties.
For centuries in China, monks and herbalists studied plants for their healing properties, and handed down their knowledge to the next generation by verbal instruction. To illustrate the importance of tea, a tale tells of an ancient Chinese herbalist who knew 100,000 healing properties of herbs, and began to pass on his wisdom to his son. The herbalist taught his son 80,000 secrets, but fell ill before he could complete the lessons. On his deathbed, the herbalist told his son to come to his grave five years from the date of his death, and there he would find the other 20,000 secrets.
On the fifth year, the obedient son went to his father's grave, and found, growing on the site, the black tea shrub.
The black tea shrub is a plant that has been endowed with the Taoist belief that beauty and harmony are achieved by order and ritual. Every detail in the planting, picking, preparation of the leaves, and ceremonial customs for drinking tea became a cultural phenomenon in the Orient. It was passed on to other cultures as humble gifts from Buddhist monks. When Japanese monks journeyed to China to study with Chinese monks, they returned home with seedlings from the black tea shrub as parting gifts. Today, Japan specializes in the production of green teas, now known as its national beverage. The plants that grow in Japan today are thought to be offshoots of those first seedlings.
The black tea shrub is a plant that has sailed the world on clipper ships and trade routes. In 1559, a tea merchant from Persia told a Venetian scholar about his experience in China, drinking tea. The scholar wrote an account of the merchant's tea tale that set the port of Venice buzzing. What was this mysterious brew? Everyone wanted to taste it. By the early 1600s, the Dutch East India Trading Company was bringing shipments of dried herbs from the black tea shrub in specially-lined boxes to Europe.
Tea was such precious cargo in its early years of import to Europe, it was reserved for royal tables, or tea-tasting parties of the rich and influential. It was introduced as an exotic medicinal beverage that could promote longevity and cure many disorders. The herb's price exceeded one hundred dollars per pound. But the herb wasn't the only expense involved.
To follow the Chinese custom, tea-drinking ceremonies in Europe required imported china. Tiny Ming teacups from China were made of porcelain and held only a few sips of tea. The cups rested on porcelain saucers, and to brew the tea, a proper Chinese teapot was needed, along with a Chinese tea jar to store the dried leaves. This was a costly endeavor that kept tea out of reach for average people. At the time, the process for making porcelain was not known in Europe, and to curb the import costs for drinking tea, the Dutch developed an imitation of the Chinese tea service in elegant blue and white delftware.
One of the earliest tea parties on record in America was held in 1674 in the Dutch Colony of New York (then called New Amsterdam). To taste the newly imported teas, society ladies arrived in their best dresses, carrying their own teacups, fashioned from delicate china, with bowls the size of wineglasses. To this day, many herbalists still specify herbal tea doses as "the size of a small wineglass."
A hundred years later, the Sons of Liberty brewed up the most memorable tea party of them all. In 1773, Americans had independence on their minds, and Britain's prohibitive taxes on tea sparked a revolution. Thirty-two cases of expensive dried herbs were tossed into the harbor on the night of the Boston Tea Party. It was the signal for the birth of a new nation.
For an ordinary plant, the black tea shrub has quite a few tales to tell of romance and intrigue, old worlds and new worlds, culture and customs. But it wasn't the only plant in the tea garden.
Locally grown herbs had been used for teas all over the world, and traded in their own way, though not as aggressively as black, oolong, and green teas. Many Mediterranean herbs were brought to Europe by the early crusaders and the Roman army. Other herbs followed the trade routes of saffron to the far east, and were exchanged for black tea leaves.
Early American colonists learned the secrets of locally grown herbs from the Indians, and these discoveries played an important role in the fight for independence. To protest the British taxes on tea in 1773, American women in Boston, Hartford, and other New England cities vowed to drink teas from indigenous weeds instead of imported teas. The brews they came up with were called Liberty Tea. Among them were the antiviral flowers of chamomile, calcium-rich raspberry leaves, and wild American sage, which is so admired by the Chinese as an herb for longevity that it remains a major American export to China today.
The Universal Garden
Through the ages, as the black tea plant mingled with herbs from many cultures, tea took on a broader meaning to encompass a wide variety of herbs, and now refers to a brew made from the leaves, flowers, berries, seeds, roots, rhizomes, or bark from a plant, steeped in hot water.
The generic term plant acquired the more cultivated name herb in botany, the branch of medical science devoted to the study of plants. More than 3,000 herbs have been studied and catalogued with properties that are healing to the human system, and not all of the plants have been studied. Some of our best western drugs were derived from herbs, including the heart medicine digitalis from the herb foxglove, and the asthma-aid ephedrine from the herb ephedra, and for years, these drugs contained the original herbs as ingredients. It wasn't until World War II, when herb shortages in Europe limited the production of these drugs, that scientists persevered by designing synthetic versions.
Each herb has its own history and folklore that are as captivating as the tale of the black tea shrub.
Some herbs, like mint, were so valued in Biblical times that they were used to pay taxes. Other herbs were honored as religious plants and dedicated to gods and goddesses. The gold flowers of calendula (pot marigold) are regarded as a remedy to strengthen the heart, and the herb has been held in high esteem in many religions. In Greek myth, the creation of calendula was attributed to Artemis, goddess of the moon, sister of the sun god, Apollo. In India, Buddhists consider the plant sacred to the goddess Dwiga, and its flowers adorn her emblem. Calendula was given many names in many countries, all associated with gold. When Christianity became the predominant religion in Europe, and many medicinal herbs were renamed to harmonize with the new religion, calendula was given the name Mary's Golde or Marigold, in honor of the Virgin Mary.