Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Related Plants: Camellia and Tea

Camellia variety, Pink Perfection
    There have been times when plant relationships surprised me. The fact that tea is a camellia, or one kind of camellia gives us tea, whichever way you want to look at it, is one of them.

   My father, when he retired to Florida, became a camellia grower, officer in the local Camellia Society and judge at camellia flower shows. Consequently I learned a lot about camellias and certainly admired the flowers.    

    Camellia is a genus of shrubs, classified in the plant family Theaceae, native to east and southeast Asia, especially China and Japan. They have attractive flowers, and have been bred and hybridized to create great floral diversity. See some of the diversity on 

     Camellias have been in cultivation in China and Japan for centuries.  Most of the varieties cultivated for their flowers are Camellia japonica,  although Camellia reticulata (from China) and C. sassanqua (from Japan) have contributed important varieties.
The vast majority of the other species of camellia, 104 to 248 depending on your botanical authority, are native to China, especially China south of the Yangtze River.

    Two camellias from Tallahassee, Florida

      Camellias, at least the ones grown as ornamental shrubs for their flowers, require a moderate amount of moisture and do not tolerate heavy frosts.  Consequently, so they are cultivated in the coastal U.S. and moist mild parts of the rest of the world.

     All over the world you can see beautiful camellias grown for their flowers, from London to Melbourne in Portland, Oregon and Atlanta, Georgia as well as Tokyo, Shanghai and hundreds of places I’ve never been. 

     It came as a surprise to me, that teas--you know, Chinese tea, English breakfast tea, oolong, Earl Gray and so on--are the leaves of a camellia, specifically Camellia sinensis.

        The flowers of tea are considerably less attractive than those of the ornamental camellias and are generally ignored. There are easily 100 other species of camellia that are not generally planted for their flowers.

Tea plantation, May, near Yangzhou China

    Like so many other camellias, tea is native to China. Camellia sinensis leaves are believed to have been brewed as tea (or chewed, or pickled) for millennia in southern and western China and the adjacent countries of SE Asia. The first written record of tea, from China, was about 2737 BC. Tea was clearly being cultivated all across China by 650 AD. Consequently it is difficult to know if wild C. sinensis still exists or if apparently wild plants in China are descended from former plantings.


     From China, tea drinking and cultivation spread around Asia. Early European navigators brought tea to Europe in the first years of the 17th century. 

   Like ornamental camellias, tea plants will grow into large shrubs or small trees. Cultivated tea plants are heavily pruned to keep them short.

Tea, different plantation near Yangzhou, September

Closer view of tea


     Tea has been planted all over the world, but, like most camellias, it is intolerant of frost and so confined to frost-free areas. Furthermore it grows best where the temperatures don’t exceed 85o F (30o C).  It prefers at least 45 inches (120 cm) of rain a year and cannot survive if the rainfall is less than about 2” (5 cm) for several months.  That means that for all the tea growing in China, it only grows in southern China, and not, for example, near Beijing.

      Tea is harvested by cutting the new leaves. This can be done as frequently as every two weeks if growing conditions are good. Processing depends on the type of tea being produced. Green teas are lightly steamed, dried and rolled. For black teas, leaves are spread and withered to reduce the moisture in them, then rolled, crushed and torn. These “disrupted” leaves are allowed to sit so the enzymes released by disruption ferment the leaf tissues, turning them brown. Finally black tea is thoroughly dried. Oolong tea receives an intermediate treatment, allowed to ferment only very slightly. 

     Most tea is drunk--it is perhaps the mostly widely consumed drink in the world. But in tea-growing regions tea leaves are used in a variety of other ways. In 2007 insouthern China, I was served tea leaves that had been flash-fried, I think, since they were crispy but not greasy. They were delicious.

    Tea is a camellia, but they are used so differently the relationship can be a surprise. 

Comments and corrections welcome.

  References I consulted

Camellia. The Plant List (2010). Version 1. Published on the Internet; (accessed 2/19/13).Duke, J. A. 1983. Camellia sinensis (L.) Kuntz. Handbook of energy crops. online at

Ellis, R. T. 1997. Tea, Camellia sinensis (Camelliaceae). pp 22-27 in J. Smartt and N. W. Simmonds, The evolution of crop plants, 2nd ed. London, Longman.

Lauener, L. A. 1996.The introduction of Chinese plants into Europe. D. K. Ferguson, editor. London, SPB Academic Publishing. 
Ming, T-T, Zhang, W-J., 1996-2001. The evolution and distribution of genus Camellia, Acta Botanica Yunnanica. Online. 
Simpson, B. B. and M. C. Orgazaly. 2001. Economic botany. 3rd. ed. Boston, McGraw-Hill.

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Kathy Keeler
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  1. I am tea lover and can't live without it. That is really good post and will definitely try this out. Thanks for sharing it..

  2. Do you have any information why camellia japonica or camellia sas. can't be used as tea? Are they poisonous? Or just not used as much?

    Thank you for your time.

  3. I have no idea why the Chinese picked one species of Camelia for tea and others for flowers. I suppose the taste of the tea plant is better than the other species. Tea was traditionally never the raw leaves, though, all were roasted--less for green, more for black--so it may be that the small leaves of tea roast much better than bigger ornamental Camelia leaves. Nothing I saw on the internet says the others are poisonous so presumably not as tasty or harder to roast.

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  5. Hi,
    Your content is amazing, I loved it a lot. We have some more tips on similar topic most beautiful camellias.

  6. Can the leaves ir flower petals be ysed for making tea. I just bought the camellia plant with velvety petals

  7. I don't know. Nobody eats the ornamental camellias but I could find no indication that they are toxic. The leaves form our classical tea, after roasting. When the British stole tea from China and took it to India, they stole artisans who knew how to process tea too. It is not likely to taste like tea without the preparation.

  8. How fun that your father loved Camellias!
    One of the first articles I read on growing Tea Camellia was from a teacher in Georgia, setup said the C sinensis weathered a bad winter better than his ornamentals!

    The flowers of tea Camellia can be dried and added to your tea - my Sochi variety (Black Sea, so the most Northern) are white, and after having tea with flowers at the Tao of Tea, I began dripping some of mine.