Camellia sinensis:
Tea Plants, from A to Tea

"Economic botanists now recognize tea as the most economically and culturally significant beverage worldwide."

- Judith Sumner, Medical Botanist

In a society with as many conveniences as ours, it's easy to be unaware of the sources or the processes involved in producing the foods and drinks we enjoy. This part of the website is devoted to getting you in touch with the roots of tea plants since they constitute the foundation of every cup of tea we drink. It will describe the what, where, why, and how of the tea plant's life and lifecycle as well as what happens to its delicate tea leaves after they are plucked.

We'll start with its name. It's called tea in English, té in Spanish, thee in Dutch, thé in French, Tee in German, chá in Portuguese, čaj in Czech, and cha in Chinese. Tea is its common name, and with over 4,500 years of history under its belt, the story of how tea got its name is a fascinating one. The tea plant's scientific name is Camellia sinensis. What goes into the plant's scientific name is equally interesting, and it might take you back to your last Life Science or Latin class...except there's no final exam here.

Varieties of Tea Plants

Two primary varieties of tea plants are responsible for the bulk of tea production in the world today. These are Camellia sinensis var. sinensis that originated in China (also referred to as China bush) and Camellia sinensis var. assamica that originated in the Assam region of India (also called Assam bush).

The two varieties easily cross-pollinate with one another, so a whole spectrum of natural variations between the Assam and China bushes exists. Additionally, scores of cultivated varieties have been developed by plant breeders. These cultivars have been bred to possess traits desirable for a specific situation. They can encompass a wide range of characteristics but might include qualities such as a more favorable hardiness, better plant size, or earlier/later bloom time.

We'll explore what the main varieties of tea plants look like as well as where they grow.   You'll also get a brief lesson in some horticultural propagation techniques and how tea plants grow. All of these should give you a better understanding of tea basics.

From Harvest to Export

Before Westerners knew much about tea besides the fact they liked to drink it, they thought that black tea came from one variety of tea plant and green tea from another. We've learned a lot in the intervening years to know that's not true—all true teas are made from Camellia sinensis. Learn the basics about tea harvesting, the all-important differences in processing techniques, the types of tea resulting from each of these, and some facts about sorting and grading tea.

And just in case you thought the tea plant was only good for one thing, we'll also take a look at other uses for the tea plant besides drinking.

Let It Steep

So you see, there are a lot of facts about tea to absorb. Some involve technical information; most of the complexity stems from the fact that there are so many nuances to tea.

As much as possible, we’ll try to simplify the information and relate it to things you already know to make it logical. Take your time with the material…and, particularly if you’re new to tea drinking, come back to it often as you imbibe in new, exotic, and enticing brews.  Ultimately it will begin to explain the myriad of differences available in tea and make your tea-drinking experience more pleasurable.

As is the case with so many of the foods we consume, it all starts with the plant.

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