The Tea Plant
The tea plant (Camellia sinensis) is one of about 80 species of East Asian evergreen shrubs and trees that belong to the tea family, or Theaceae. Tea reaches a height of 9 meters but is kept pruned to a low, mounded shrub in cultivation. The foliage is emerald green, while the flowers are fragrant, yellow-centered, white and about 4 centimeters wide.
Tea plant cultivation began about 4,000 years ago in its native country, China. The Japanese did not discover the plant until the 8th century A.D., and cultivation was established by the 13th century. The Europeans were finally introduced to the plant during the 17th century. And, by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, tea growing had spread to Russian Georgia, Sumatra, Iran, and non-Asian countries such as Natal, Uganda, Kenya, Congo and other African countries and also to Argentina, Brazil, and Peru in South America and even to Queensland in Australia. Americans invented tea bags, and at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904, they started the practice of drinking iced tea (Algood, 1999).
The date as to when the Chinese discovered that the leaves of the tea plant could be turned into a beverage precedes written history. However, an accepted story dates the discovery to 2737 B.C. when Emperor Shen Nung drank hot water containing leaves of a camellia species that accidentally fell into it (Durbin, 1999).
For millenia, tea was used as a medicinal beverage because it flavored water and seemed to help prevent sickness, It became a daily beverage around the 3rd century A.D. When the tea trade began, it was transported around China and beyond its borders by caravans consisting of 300-500 horses. The men leading the horses discovered that a tasty orange fluid would come running out of the bags once they became wet. The workers started to drink tea (Durbin, 1999).
Before World War II, Americans primarily drank green (unfermented) and oolong (semi -fermented) teas. The colonists dumped green tea into Boston Harbor during the Boston Tea Party. Black (fermented) tea did not become popular until after the war (Hansen, 1998), and today it is the most popular type in the U.S.
The tea plant blooms in early fall. It is very hardy and can survive temperatures as low as 0 degrees F, but cool seasons that differ by 20 degrees F from the warm season will cause the growth rate of the plant to decrease and a dormant period will set in. Camellias thrive in moist, well-drained, slightly acidic soils and prefer partial shade. A suitable climate has a minimum annual rainfall of 45-50 inches. During the growing season, the plant is kept pruned to a short bush because only the young, tender leaves and buds are wanted for commercial processing into marketable tea.
Camellias can be propagated from softwood cuttings rooted under mist or from seeds. Seed propagation requires no pretreatment, and grafting selected scion wood onto large root stock speeds early...