The tea plant is an evergreen that mainly grows in tropical and sub-tropical climates, although tea is now also successfully being cultivated in Cornwall. It is now grown in 51 countries. Good quality tea requires no less than 50 inches of rainfall per year and is grown at altitudes of up to 1500m (5000 feet). This forces the plant to grow more slowly resulting in greater flavour.
China and India are the biggest tea producers in the world and account for 50% of the total production.
All tea varieties, including Green, White, Oolong, Black and Pu Erh, come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. It is the production process used after picking and the percentage of oxidation that determines the variety of tea it becomes. For example, green tea is 0% oxidized (remains green) and black tea is 100% oxidized (it becomes black).
In most cases, when picked in an orthodox way (by hand), only the top 1-2 inches of the plant is picked, which consists of the bud and one or two leaves. Often, the newer the growth, the better the tea. The first picking of the growing season is considered the highest quality and is therefore the most expensive. This is known as the first flush. It can take up to 10 days for the plant to produce the second flush.
Beverages that are made without Camellia sinensis are called infusions or tisane and are made from fruit, herbs, flowers and/or other plant materials.
Legend has it that the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung discovered tea in 2737 B.C. while he was sitting under a tea tree with a cup of boiling water and a leaf fell into it. The emperor drank the mixture and declared that it gave one "vigour of body, contentment of mind, and determination of purpose.".
By the turn of the century, the Dutch had established a trading post on the island of Java, and it was via Java that in 1606 the first consignment of tea was shipped from China to Holland. Tea did not arrive in England until 1658.
It was a Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza, who made tea fashionable in Britain after marrying Charles II in 1662.
Tea has been a factor in a number of wars and uprisings, including the Opium Wars between China and the British Empire, which resulted in Hong Kong becoming a part of Britain. There was of course also the Boston Tea Party, which started the American War of Independence.
Tea caravans from China traveling through Russia to Europe could take up to 18 months with 200 -300 animals carrying 600 pounds each.