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Plant writings, gardening thoughts & observations of Paul Hervey - Brookes, Award Winning Garden Designer & Plantsman.
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Monday, 22 June 2009

Camellia sinensis – A plant that changed the nation.

I am rather fond of tea. It has an addictive quality far above its contents as a beverage, being steeped in exotic, nostalgic and nationalistic history. The plant which produces tea may not be native but I like to think that the customs we have built around the drink made from it, go some way to identifying ‘Englishness’.

The Dutch were already importing tea from China in 1610 at an equivalent rate of £60 a lb of leaf or more regularly at a rate of 1lb sage leaf, which the Chinese adored, for 4lb of tea leaf. Tea was also enormously popular in pre-revolutionary France with Madam de Maintenon being amongst its ardent followers with Louis XIV ordering two investigations into the medical and health benefits. Now it’s a well known fact that by dilating the blood

vessels tea does improve the flow of blood to the brain, a lack of which does cause migraines something I have never suffered thankfully. Rather sadly to my mind like so much of the ‘acienne regimé’ it was lost to the French as they took up coffee.

In Britain, the once great lover of tea, we have consumed huge volumes. Starting out as a luxury item, tea was presented to Charles II by the East India Company at a rate of 50 shillings per pound. At this time imports of tea stood at 20,000lb a year with a cup, porcelain you would hope, costing a shilling in 1706 at Thomas Twining’s Golden Lion in the Strand.

Although around the 1790’s we were using 16 million pounds of tea annually, knowledge of the actual plant was limited to a very few. One of the first Tea plants, Camellia sinensis var. sinensis was brought from China by Dr. James Cunningham around 1702. In Hortus Kewensis, Thea bohea is listed as having been planted by John Ellis in 1768 along with an illustration of the Duke of Northumberland’s tea plant in flower in 1771 at Syon House. Perhaps the most horticulturally important ‘grower’ of tea to us was Carl Linnaeus, who reportedly tried 20 times to successfully grow a specimen. There are many accounts of the misadventures of trying to get specimens to Linnaeus, from plants being eaten by mice on ship to being blown over board but in 1763 two plants were successfully taken to Uppsala where they were grown, enabling Linnaeus to study them in depth. Europe’s first commercial crop of tea came, incidentally in 2005, at Tregothnan over looking the River Fal in Cornwall.

For centuries all tea came from China, this trade was called tribute by the Chinese who refused to converse in any language except Chinese referring to the European traders as barbarians. From our dealings with the Chinese the word ‘cash’ passed into the English language. In the 1840’s whilst trying to set up tea growing in India, Robert Fortune who had collected material in China for the Royal Horticultural Society donned a disguise and returned to China to purchase seed of tea plants. He wanted only the finest seed from the prime tea growing plantations and using his knowledge of Berberis japonica, which he knew only grew in prime tea districts, he told his collectors to bring samples of the berberis along with the tea, no berberis no cash. Cash being the Mandarin word for money. However, for all this hard work the preference for Chinese tea to make plantations in India was soon replaced with the local indigenous species, camellia assamica, for which we have developed a greater taste over time and interestingly is self-sterile.

Tea also had a precarious start in Ceylon and it was only the coffee blight of 1869 that turned a few hundred acres of plantations into the worlds largest exporter for a while during the 20th century.

During the 20th century tea was truly characterised as England’s national beverage. From the strains of high society and the importance of when to add the milk and handle the tea cup properly, to Imperial Britons returning home from dangers abroad being welcomed not by ‘glad your safe’ but ‘delighted to see you, cup of tea?’. During the Second World War, tea cars cheerily went out at great danger to themselves to ensure those bombed out during the blitz could be offered a ‘cuppa’.

It’s from these great heights of affection that today tea seems to be confined for the greater part to a sorry state of ‘dust’ in a bag. I know you can buy leaf tea, ours is procured at Fortnum & Mason, we have a broad selection ranging from Smokey Earl Grey, Earl Grey, Russian Caravan, Rose Pouchong and Osmanthus in our cupboards at home, but sadly when out at a restaurant or, dare I say it, one of the multitude of dull bland high street ‘coffee houses’, I never take tea, generally because it is bland and badly made. What happened to our national love of the drink made by the great camellia, a plant that changed the world, sent men halfway across the globe to discover its secrets or die trying? In 1956 we consumed 10lb per person of tea, today its roughly 4.85lbs annually. On the whole I think I would have joined the five thousand who were secretly being trained to ‘brew tea’ should we have been invaded in the 1940’s, an exercise which would have been as essential to our national resistance as any guns and explosives.

Russian Tea on Foodista


Claire Potter said...

What a wonderful post. I enjoyed reading it as much as drinking my very own cuppa, which is sitting at my side as I write. This is your best post so far - more like this please.

I have a badge from Brownies which is proof that I know how to brew a proper cup of tea in a teapot (amazing how many people of a certain age who do not know how to do this...)

I regularly swing between being an avid coffee or tea drinker, but you cannot beat a proper brew when returning home after an exhausting day out and about. I have never said 'ooh, lets have a nice cup of coffee'. Tea? yes please.

And who can forget a proper, English Cream Tea. Now you're talking. X

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