Tea: not as exclusive as sometimes thought

Tea is always in the news lately. It is good for you and packed with antioxidants and while poor old coffee gets in the headlines because one week it is good for you and the next almost poison*, tea is universally a good guy. Of course it is not that simple and while most of us have been happily drinking black tea ( the crushed or rolled leaves are allowed to oxidise before drying) green tea has been getting all the acolodes.  Black tea has more caffeine-like chemicals as a result of oxidisation while green tea, has other antioxidants and useful chemicals called catechins that may have some effects on metabolic reactions and affect weight loss. Green teas are often sold as a weight loss aid. White tea, green tea, black tea and oolong are all produced by the same plant.

A lot of teas do not involve tea (Camellia sinensis) at all and are herbal or vegetable in origin. I am a long term fan of herbal teas though some take some getting used to, and a lot of modern ‘teas’ have a lot of fruit or flavourings and I think you might as well drink cola some of the time.

Anyway, back to tea. It is an unassuming little shrub though the white flowers are quite attractive, and while it is not ‘quite’ hardy, it is not difficult to grow as long as you remember that it is a lime hater and must be treated with a bit of respect. Here in Ireland it has been promoted recently and one supplier claims to be the only place you can obtain a plant. This is not the case because it is quite commonly available in garden centres as a house plant and the local Springmount Garden Centre has had them all year. I believe the plants are grown in The Netherlands.

Tea oil is expressed from the seeds of the tea plant. Like the common camellias in our gardens, it produces a hard fruit with two or three seeds inside. These can be pressed to extract an oil that is commonly used in cooking and many other ways. The oil from Camellia japonica is called tsubaki oil and is the most used as a hair dressing and in cosmetics.

Carl Linnaeus named camellias after Georg Kamel in 1753 but he did not think tea was a camellia but put it in the genus Thea – you can see the connection with tea straight away! But thea was absorbed into camellia in 1818, although the family to which camellias belong is still Theaceae! It includes stewartias and gordonia too.


* I read the other day that drinking 4 cups of coffee a day can help ‘reduce death’ by 40% (or something similar – nonsense since it won’t actually prevent death no matter how good it is) which is very good news.

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