Tea (camellia sinensis)

Native to Asia, the tea plant is extensively cultivated in tropical and subtropical countries, including China, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Japan. Some tea gardens in China have continuously produced this valuable beverage leaf for more than 1,000 years.

Tea has a remarkably long history of use as a beverage in China, Japan, and India, the largest tea-producing nation in the world. These cultures believe that drinking tea optimizes health and ensures longevity. The plant’s leaves contain caffeine, a mild stimulant; Eastern religious practitioners once drank this herbal beverage to stay awake during long meditations.


Plant profile

Common Names: Black Tea, Chinese Tea, Green Tea, Tea

Description: Small evergreen tree or shrub, 3 to 30 feet tall; elliptical dark green leaves; fragrant, 1-inch white flowers with yellow stamens

Hardiness: To Zone 8

Family: Theaceae

Flowering: Late summer to fall

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to western China and northwestern India; widely cultivated in tropical and subtropical areas

Culinary use

Tea is second only to water as the world’s most popular beverage. The plant’s leaves are used to make four basic types of tea: black, oolong, green, and white. Black tea is fully oxidized (the chlorophyll breaks down and combines with oxygen in the air); oolong tea is partially oxidized; and green tea is wilted but not oxidized. White tea is neither wilted nor oxidized—it is made from the plant’s immature leaves and buds, which are steamed and dried immediately after harvesting.

You can impart tea’s delicate herbal flavor to prepared foods by replacing some or all of the cooking water with brewed tea. Experiment by adding tea when preparing rice, couscous, and other grains; soups; puddings; and baked goods, such as scones and sweet breads.

Medicinal use

Both black and green teas are rich in free radical-fighting antioxidants, and both have similar heart health and anticancer benefits. Since the mid-1980s, an impressive number of scientific studies have supported green tea’s ability to protect your body against cancer, heart disease, and ulcers. Drinking green tea also invigorates your mind and central nervous system and can help control diarrhea.

Externally, green tea has been used as a mouthwash to prevent plaque formation on the teeth. A topical cream produced from green tea and used for the treatment of genital and anal warts caused by human papilloma virus (HPV) was approved by the FDA in 2006. This was the first approval of a whole botanical extract as a prescription botanical drug. Studied in clinical trials of nearly 400 adults, the product (Veregen ointment) proved effective at eliminating the warts.

Like green tea, black tea has a stimulating effect on the central nervous system, generally evinced by a feeling of comfort and exhilaration. It also acts as an astringent, which makes it useful for treating diarrhea.

Caution: Tea contains caffeine, which can cause nervousness, heart palpitations, anxiety, insomnia, and digestive disturbances. It should be avoided by pregnant women and by people who suffer from hypertension, anxiety, eating disorders, diabetes, and ulcers.

Other uses

Tea is found in many cosmetic products. It is valued for its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and skin protective properties.

How to grow it

The tea plant grows best in a warm, humid climate that receives ample rainfall. The soil, altitude, and climate in which the tea plant grows can affect the flavor of the leaves.

In Zone 8 and warmer areas, you can grow tea in your garden as a small evergreen tree or shrub. In cooler regions, grow the plant in a large pot and move it indoors for winter. Provide rich, moist, but well-drained soil with neutral to slightly acid pH and direct sun or partial shade. Water regularly, especially the first year. In midspring to late spring, snip back tips of branches to encourage bushy growth.

Harvest the tender leaves and buds at the ends of the branches in spring, beginning in the plant’s third year. After harvesting, spread out the leaves to wilt for a few hours (for oolong tea), or for 2 to 3 days (for black).

For green tea, wilt the leaves by cooking them quickly in a skillet or wok for about 2 minutes. To finish drying all three types, spread the leaves on a baking sheet and place it in a 250°F oven for 20 minutes. Store the dried tea in an airtight container.

Refresh your body with tea

Tea is a magical plant with many uses! Here are just a few ways to use this valuable herb to cleanse, soothe, relax, and refresh your body.

• Relieve sore feet and keep them smelling sweet by soaking them for 20 minutes in a bath of strong black tea.

• Mix witch hazel with strong (cool) black tea to make a stimulating scalp toner; massage in the liquid after shampooing. Wait a few minutes, then rinse with water. Follow up with a conditioner.

• Use cool black tea as a mild astringent skin toner; apply with a clean cotton ball.

• Soothe insect bites and cuts by applying a cool, used black tea bag. To reduce inflammation from sunburn, hang four or five tea bags from the faucet when filling your tub; soak in the warm water.