Do you know where tea comes from? All teas other than rooibos and herbal teas (which are both made from a combination of herbs) come from the Camellia sinensis plant. There are two types of this plant, including Camellia sinensis assamica, which is native to the Assam province in India, or the Camellia sinensis sinensis plant, which is native to China, but is now grown in over 45 countries.
Camellia sinensis sinensis, which is found in Taiwan, Japan, and Darjeeling, as well as China, is perhaps most commonly referred to as the tea plant, and has smaller leaves than the assamica variety, meaning that it creates a more delicate tasting tea. All types of teas, including white tea, green tea, oolong, pu-erh, and black teas, can be made from the Camellia sinensis plant but they differ in the type of tea that they produce due to the way that they are processed and the amount of oxidation that they receive.
Even though most tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant, there’s still a lot of variation between the teas that it produces. Camellia sinensis sinensis does well in cooler temperatures and at higher elevations, meaning that those plants that are grown at higher elevations tend to have more concentrated flavors, as the cooler temperature slows growth, allowing more depth of flavor. The plant itself is a bush or a small tree, with branches starting only about 20-30 cm off the ground, and usually producing white flowers, although some do appear pink. The plant will typically will continue to grow until temperatures dip below 10 degrees Celsius or 50 degrees Fahrenheit, which creates three harvesting periods: in the spring, in the summer, and in the Fall.
The tea plant was actually discovered by accident in around 2737 B.C.E. when, as legend goes, an emperor was boiling water in his garden, and a leaf from the Camellia sinensis plant fell into his pot. Within China, tea was originally used medicinally and then within trade before blossoming into the popular beverage that we know today. But, still, tea has a unique and mystical quality. Because only the top leaves of the plant are harvested, it is often pruned into a fan shape for easy picking, as it is typically harvested by hand, although some teas are now harvested mechanically. Most tea is harvested during the warmer months of the year when the plant is flourishing, meaning that a lot of preparation goes into creating the cup of tea that you hold in your hands today.
Once harvested, the tea leaves then need to be dried and processed, leading to the different types of tea that you know and love. The leaves that will become green tea are steamed or pan-fired before they start to oxidize, whereas black tea leaves are allowed to oxidize before heat is applied, creating depth of color. Pu-erh is unique because of the fermentation process the leaves undergo. Oolong is somewhat of a cross between green and black tea as its leaves are semi-oxidized, whereas white tea undergoes the least processing and is typically just dried and withered. From this one little plant, many different teas can be created.
Although the tea plant is native to China, it can grow in many other climates, usually in mountainous territory, and it can also be grown in controlled environments. There are many large tea farms in South Carolina, Alabama, Hawaii, Washington, and Oregon, as well as smaller tea gardens that are hand-harvested throughout the United States. The next time you enjoy a cup, you might allow yourself to think about the journey that your tea took to get to you.
About Sips by: We’re a female-founded and led startup that makes discovering tea fun, personalized, and affordable. The Sips by Box is the only multi-brand, personalized tea subscription box. Each month, we match tea drinkers across the U.S. with delicious teas from over 150 global tea brands that we’re sure they’ll love. Based out of Austin, Texas, we are adept at savoring a hot mug even when it’s seasonally inappropriate.