On a global level, tea is the most popular beverage after water. Over 800 million cups of tea are consumed daily. Today India is the world's largest producer of tea, harvesting an estimated 700,000 metric tons annually, followed by China and Kenya with about 580,000 and 188,000 metric tons, respectively. But because most tea is produced and consumed locally, tea is not as important an international commodity as one might expect.
Many legends surround the origins of tea. In India, tea is described as a gift from Buddha, while in China its discovery is attributed to the Emperor Shen Nung in 2737 B.C. Whatever its origins, there is no disagreement that Camellia sinensis, the plant whose leaves are collected to make tea, is native to the area adjoining Tibet, India, China, and Burma.
The first comprehensive text on tea, First Tea Classic, was written by a Chinese man named Lo Yu in 780 A.D. In 801 A.D., tea was introduced to Japan, where it assumed a paramount role in Buddhist rituals. Each aspect of the elaborate Japanese tea ceremony, "sado," is linked to aspects of Zen Buddhism. Tea was first mentioned in European literature in 1559 by a Venetian author and in 1615 by an Englishman. By 1657, tea was being served in many of England's coffee houses. In 1773, American colonists protested the British import tax on tea by staging the Boston Tea Party on December 16. The British established commercial planting of tea in India in the early nineteenth century.
C. sinensis is in the Theaceae family of dicots, which is represented by 28 genera and 520
Green tea, black tea, and oolong tea are all produced from C. sinensis, depending on the processing. To make green tea, the leaves are steamed after picking, rolled, and immediately dried, thereby retaining their green color. Because of the minimal processing, green tea retains more phytochemicals than other types of tea, including theanine, an amino acid linked with relaxing effects. In the United States, 95% of the tea consumed is black or fermented tea.
Historically, tea has been used as a medicinal product because it contains several B-complex vitamins and catechins, often called "tea flavonoids." Catechins are antioxidants, a highly desirable group of substances that tend to neutralize the damaging free radicals attacking the healthy cells in our bodies [see "Food of the Gods"]. A free radical is a molecule containing an oxygen atom that is missing an electron, which it seeks to replace by taking one from another molecule. The number of free radicals in the body is increased by such factors as radiation, poisons, cancer, and heart disease. Additional research is also looking into the cholesterol-lowering effects of drinking tea.
Whether you drink tea for its medicinal qualities, for a caffeine boost, or for pleasure, you are drinking a beverage surrounded in mystery and ceremony.
References, Websites, and Further Reading
Levetin, Estelle, and Karen McMahon. 1999. Plants and society, 2d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, pp. 263-66.
Mabberley, D. J. 1997. The plant-book, 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Simpson, B.B., and Molly C. Ogorzaly. 2001. Economic botany: Plants in our world, 3d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies.
Tijburg, L. B., et al. 1997. Effects of green tea, black tea and dietary lipophilic antioxidants on LDL oxidizability and atherosclerosis in hypercholesterolaemic rabbits. Cardiosource 135 (1):34-47.
Morphology of Theaceae, University of New Orleans
Related Reading in Stern, Introductory Plant Biology, 8th Edition
Chapter 2: The Nature of Life
Chapter 3: Cells
Chapter 6: Stems
Chapter 7: Leaves
Chapter 8: Flowers, Fruits, and Seeds
Chapter 9: Water in Plants
Chapter 10: Plant Metabolism
Chapter 11: Growth
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