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Tea-sing Camellia

By Audrey Stallsmith

camellia japonica

No diamond in the ballroom seems so costly as that perfect flower, which women envy, and for whose least and withered petal men sigh; yet, in the tropical solitudes of Brazil, how many a camellia bud drops from the bush that no eye has ever seen, which, had it flowered and been noticed, would have gilded all hearts with its memory.

George WM Curtis

With the possible exception of the rose, no flower was more adored in the Victorian era than the one that stood in the Language of Flowers for "excellence" and "perfect loveliness." The camellia offered everything: novelty, showy blooms, and Oriental origins. (The Victorians were infatuated with the Far East.) The excellent import also tolerated--even preferred—the dim and chilly atmosphere of the parlor.

A novel called La Dame aux Camelias, which associated the flower with loose women, eventually caused the wealthy to cut the plant dead, so to speak. But the lower prices associated with decreased popularity allowed the middle classes to redeem this beauty from its titillating infamy.

The camellia also provided just enough challenge to be interesting. Though the plant itself is easy enough to keep alive, it will only set and keep buds if nighttime temperatures of 40 to 50 degrees are assiduously maintained. So, although it can be grown outdoors in the South, most Victorians kept it on their windowsills.

Unfortunately, modern central heating makes the camellia harder to please, except for those hobbyists with cool greenhouses. On the plus side, new cold-hardy crosses of camellia oleifera and sasanqua may allow even those of us in northern climes to cultivate this southern belle outdoors.

And one variety of camellia, thea, has never lost its popularity. It provides us with the main ingredient for the most widely consumed beverage in the world other than water--tea. Although most of us don’t think of tea as an herb, it is also the most used plant “medicine.” The esteem the drink commands in certain countries is indicated by the fact that the Greek thea means “goddess.”

According to Chinese legend, an emperor named Shen Nung (“Divine Healer”), discovered tea around 2727 BC when some leaves from a camellia tree drifted down into a pot of water he was boiling. But the drink didn’t become widely popular in China until the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD). Europe, on the other hand, didn’t adopt the beverage until introduced to it by Dutch traders in the 1600’s. Known as cha, the Cantonese type arrived in Eastern Europe via a land route while the Fukien type known as te made it to Western Europe by sea.

“Camellia” was, strangely enough, named after a man who probably never heard of the plant. An Austrian Jesuit missionary to the Philippines, Georg Josef Kamel did provide the world with valuable information on the flora that grew there. But the “goddess” of flowers was not among them.

The first European to write about the camellia was probably a German physician named Andreas Cleyer who visited Japan in the 1680’s. At that time, Japan had expelled all foreign missionaries and put strict limits on what could be imported or exported from its shores. It allowed only a few Dutch companies to maintain a presence on an artificial island in one of its harbors.

According to Alice Coats’ Plant Hunters, Cleyer “organized a lively smuggling trade for which he was eventually expelled.” That trade reportedly cost the Japanese he had suborned into helping him their lives.

So when Linnaeus was handing out plant names, he may have had his reasons for preferring to honor Kamel, a priest who handed out free medicines to the poor. Besides, you have to admit that camellia sounds much better than cleyerria would have!

Shortly thereafter, in 1698, a Scottish surgeon named James Cuninghame made a perilous trip to China in the employ of the East India Company. Between surviving massacres and imprisonment, he somehow managed to ship about 600 varieties of Oriental plants—including camellias--back to England.

Although he never made it home himself to receive credit for that feat, European nurserymen apparently seized upon his finds with gusto. When another Scottish botanist, James Main, visited China in 1794, he purchased very few camellias because he thought those already being developed in Britain were superior.

Tea soon became nearly as essential there as it was in the Orient. The high demand for it may have motivated British colonization. And, in the late 1800's, tea saved the plantations of Ceylon from financial disaster after an epidemic of coffee rust.

The top three leaves of each camellia thea shoot are harvested, dried, and called, respectively, the flowering orange pekoe, the orange pekoe, and the pekoe. For black tea, those leaves are also crushed and oxidized.

A 1773 tax on the tea that was shipped to America made the beverage temporarily unpopular here. Certain disgruntled colonists expressed their displeasure by dressing like Indians, hacking open crates of imported tealeaves, and tossing them into Boston Harbor. (That must have been the largest “pot” ever brewed!) Perhaps the Boston “party” explains why coffee still seems to have the upper hand in the U. S.

Tea is, however, gaining more popularity, as its health benefits become known. It contains polyphenols that help prevent cancer and heart disease. Although tea, like coffee, is a stimulant, its caffeine levels are lower. So its effects are milder, though it will still ease breathing for asthmatics and increase alertness.

To some, it acts as a comforter as well. The unfortunate person who stumbles upon the corpse in an English murder mystery is always offered a “cuppa” to calm the nerves. Tea’s tannic compounds fight viruses, increasing the body’s resistance to colds and flu, and are astringent enough to heal diarrhea. Tea also speeds up metabolism, helps prevents tooth decay (because it contains fluoride), and improves digestion.

I find plain tea bland, but have recently discovered the Indian version called chai, which is much more to my taste. It is made by heavily lacing the tea with milk and exotic spices like cardamom, ground cloves, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, pepper, coriander, etc. Since many of those spices also have health benefits, you might be able to kill two maladies with one cup, so to speak.

Although tea reportedly helps prevent some types of cancer, countries where it is consumed “straight” (without milk) seem to have higher rates of throat cancer. So do consider adding a jolt of calcium to your cuppa!

Finally, we modern middle-class plant enthusiasts might want to close off a room during the winter months for this tea-singly gorgeous flower. (Our primroses and cyclamens will thank us for the cooler tempatures too!)

Camellia japonica image is from Icones Plantarum Rariorum edited by Nicolao Josepho Jacquin, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.