Camellia Sinensis: An introduction

I have always had an unhealthy obsession with knowledge, which is probably why I felt the need to go to school to be a tea sommelier and to get a job in a tea shop for the sole reason of gaining knowledge about a plant, rather than just feeling the need to read the Wikipedia article and huddling up with my favourite mug like any normal person would do. But do you know what? I’m sick of being the only weird one here. Let’s get onto learning.

Camellia Sinensis. It’s a plant. More specifically, a shrub. In the wild, it grows up to thirty meters high, but usually it’s pruned down to a few feet tall for the reason that there is nobody ninety feet tall in the world, and we like to pick the leaves off of this plant and steep them in water. What does this have to do with tea? So full of inquisition, made-up-audience-voice! I am glad you asked!

Colloquially speaking, a lot of beverages are tea, but in actuality, a large portion of them are things called tisanes. More on that later. White teas, green teas, yellow teas, oolong teas, black teas, pu-erh teas, or any beverage with leaves from the previously mentioned can be known as tea. Yerba Mate, rooibos, or blends like strawberry apple are drinks separate from tea, and are known officially as tisanes, as they do not contain any variety of the camellia sinensis plant in them; however, if it was a rooibos tea blended with a black tea or it was a strawberry apple green, it could be distinguished as tea, in a snooty academic sense. It is a delicate line, but the thing to remember is that any beverage with leaves, buds, or stems from any variety of the camellia sinensis plant can be known as tea.

Speaking of varieties of camellia sinensis, there are only two of them that are used commonly for tea. Camellia sinensis var. sinensis and Camellia sinensis var. assamica. Translated into Chinese, then back into English (not even kidding about that), camellia sinensis translates to tea flower. I am admittedly unsure of the linguistic nuances, but the second sinensis in camellia sinensis var. sinensis translates to from China. We can therefore realize that camellia sinensis var. sinensis translates into tea flower from China. Camellia Sinensis var, Assamica translates to tea flower from India.

Leaves from both varieties of the camellia sinensis plant contain caffeine and fluoride, and there is no known way to get rid of those things naturally. Decaffeination in tea is possible; however, almost always involves chemical processing, and though companies claim it has no adverse effects in taste, I personally have never had a decaffeinated tea I enjoy, and I cynically liken the claim to how L’Oreal Kids Shampoo is tear free. That stuff is the work of the devil.

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7 thoughts on “Camellia Sinensis: An introduction

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  4. Just going to be slightly pedantic about your penultimate paragraph. You wrote:
    “Translated into Chinese, then back into English (not even kidding about that), camellia sinensis translates to tea flower.”
    This is I suppose true, but it reads very strangely, as if you are saying that ‘Camellia sinensis’ is Chinese for tea flower, which is not the case. The Chinese name for the camellia is ‘cháhuā’ (at least according to wikipedia — I freely admit my chinese is non-existent) which in English means ‘tea-flower’ (cha of course meaning tea). The binomial camellia sinensis is derived from Latin (where I am on rather better ground): camellia is derived from the name of the botanist Georg Kamel who worked in south-east asia in the early 1700s, and so means “Kamel’s thing” (implicitly, “Kamel’s plant”). The ‘sinensis’ means Chinese (compare e.g. the phrase ‘Sino-Japanese war’, ‘Sino-American relations’). So Camellia sinensis is “Chinese Kamel’s Flower” literally, or “Chinese camellia”.
    On to the varieties: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis is therefore “Chinese camellia, Chinese variety”, whereas Camellia sinensis var. assamica is “Chinese camellia, Assam variety”.

    NB also that the Chinese word ‘cháhuā’ doesn’t refer to all Camellias, just Camellia sinensis.

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