Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 365-A   January 17, 1970
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

The earliest English writings about the plant and beverages we know as tea, which had been brought to Europe from China about 1610 by Dutch navigators, referred to it as "Tay, alias Tee", or as "Tcha" and "Chaw". In the Cantonese dialect it is called ch'a, but in the Amoy dialect it is t'e, pronounced "tay". And 'tay" it is in the brogue of a grand old Irish lady we know.

The tea plant is a large much-branched evergreen shrub, closely related to the camelia. Unless kept pruned back for cultivation, to a height of 5 feet or less, it will become a small tree from 15 to 30 feet tall. When in bloom it bears a profusion of scented white or pinkish blossoms which, with their thick waxy petals encircling a cluster of yellow stamens, remind you of a small wild rose. The pointed leathery leaves, lightly saw-toothed along the edges and two inches or more long when mature, resemble a rose leaflet. There are two species and many horticultural varieties but, early in the 19th Century, one species was found growing wild in the forests of Assam, the province in the northeastern corner of India, and that probably was its original home.

The earliest reliable mention of tea growing and tea drinking in China was in AD 350 but, according to legend, the plant had been grown there for medicinal purposes since about 2700 BC. Buddhist priests promoted its cultivation and use throughout China and Japan to combat intemperance, so they say. From Japan it was introduced into Java and Formosa. In 1833, tea came back home when, from seeds obtained in China, the first plantations were started in India which is now the world's greatest producer and where three-fourths of the crop is grown in Assam ! Before World War Two, China was probably the next largest but consumed far more than it exported. Ceylon and Dutch East Indies were second and third in exports. The finest teas, grown and cured in Japan and China, are rarely tasted outside those two countries where epicures know how to brew and enjoy them.

Quality in tea is determined by the age of the leaves, the season of the year when it is picked, the age of the plant, where it is grown, how high above sea level, and the care taken in fertilizing and cultivating it because a tea garden impoverishes the soil. Planted in rows about 4 feet apart, the plant thrives best at moderate altitudes in a warm moist climate on well-drained soil.

As we understand it, the rarest teas, frequently perfumed with jasmine, use only the leaf buds at the tips of twigs, and the finest commercial grades use only the tender little terminal leaf or perhaps the next youngest leaves below it. "Coarse plucking" takes the next four leaves for cheaper grades. Poor tea may even include stems. The flavor is also determined by the method of curing. Green tea, preferred in China and Japan, is unfermented; black tea is fermented; Oolong tea, mostly from Formosa, is slightly fermented -- these three general classes are all made from the same type of plant. Trade names -- such as Flowery, Orange Pekoe, Pekoe and Souchong; or Orange Pekow, Gunpowder, Imperial, Young Hysong and Hysong -- indicate the age and quality of the leaves it contains, according to whether it is a black or a green tea.

Brick tea, made of tea dust and broken leaves, is exported to Russia where they drink it with lemon or spices added. A coarse brick tea of leaves and stalks is sent to Tibet where they add yak butter and salt, The Persians boil their tea until very strong and add spices. The British usually add milk and sugar.

"Everybody to his own taste," as the old man said when he kissed the cow.

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