“If a man has no tea in him, he is incapable of understanding truth and beauty.” – Japanese Proverb


Tea is an infusion of the dried leaves, flowers and buds of the Camellia sinensis plant. It originated in south-east Asia on the borders of northern Burma and southern China. It now grows in 52 countries. The world’s oldest cultivated tea tree is more than 3,200 years old and is found in Yunnan province in south-west China. After water, tea is the most often drunk drink in the world. The best quality tea grows up high. When tea plants are harvested only the top two inches are picked: these are called flushes. During the growing season a new flush grows every seven to 10 days.


English: Tea plantation near Munnar, Kerala, I...

Tea plantation near Munnar, Kerala, India

The English fashion for tea drinking began in the early 18th century, driven by the British East India Company which had established a monopoly over its import in 1686. This lasted until 1834. No European then had any idea how tea was grown, dried or blended. They simply imported it from China. Tea (until Victorian times the English upper classes pronounced it “tay” and even spelt it “the”) was drunk at the table over civilised conversation and needed lots of paraphernalia to drink it, like porcelain teacups and teapots and special spoons. When Addison and Steele’s daily Spectator was launched in 1711 they advised that it should be considered “part of the tea-equipage”.


Most Indians hadn’t tasted tea before the mid-19th century. The British East India Company started commercial tea production in the 1820s, planting a Chinese variety high in the hills of Darjeeling. At the same time, Major Robert Bruce found tea plants growing wild in the Assam region of north-east India. It was found to be a separate variety of Camellia sinensis and made a particularly dark, rich tea. India is now the world’s second largest tea producer after China, and the home market consumes two-thirds of the annual crop. All areas other than Darjeeling now grow the Assam variety.

Earl Grey

Because tea was such a valuable commodity, demand regularly outstripped supply and adulteration was widespread. Twigs, sawdust and iron filings were commonly added; in 1770 one village near London was quoted as producing more than 20 tons of adulterated material a year for supply to tea merchants. Their recipe was ash leaves boiled with sheep dung (for colour). In some cases the adulterants were added for flavour as well as bulk.

A nice cup of tea (and a sit down). A Denby te...

A Denby teapot and cup with milk jug

Earl Grey tea is flavoured with the rind of the bergamot orange, a fragrant citrus fruit. It was named after the second Earl Grey, British Prime Minister 1830-34. Jacksons of Piccadilly claim Lord Grey handed them his recipe, based on an old Chinese version. This is unlikely, as he never visited China and bergamots don’t grow there. It is more likely the Earl Grey blend developed out of necessity, to spin out one of the regular shortages in supply from China.


Philosopher Jeremy Bentham kept a teapot called Dickey as a pet. A cult in Malaysia worships a giant teapot, as it symbolises “the healing purity of water”. The world’s oldest operating petrol station, in Zillah, Washington State, is shaped like a teapot.
There are about a quintillion atoms in a teaspoon of sugar (that’s 1 followed by 30 zeros). Alternatively, you could use the teaspoon to hold 2,000 carrot seeds. If the empty space were removed from the constituent atoms, the entire population of the planet could be compressed into the same space as a sugar cube (but it would weigh 10 billion tons).

3 thoughts on “Tea

  1. Pingback: Camellias in pots | Science on the Land

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