Though we are a nation of coffee drinkers, during the dog days of August iced tea is popular everywhere. In this area “sweet tea” is the beverage of choice but elsewhere it is served unsweetened. Over 80 percent of the tea consumed in the United States is the chilled variety.
Iced tea was something of a novelty before we all could make ice at home. The oldest published recipe is in a cookbook from Boston in 1884. It became more popular at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
Camillia sinensis is native to western Yunnan in China. It does grow to be an evergreen tree but is kept pruned to shrub size in commercial plantations. Its native habitat is open woodland with dappled shade
Legend has it that the mythical father of Chinese
traditional medicine discovered tea's beverage potential while boiling water under a tea tree. A leaf fell into the pot, coloring the water. The drink filled him with a sense of calm and peace. This early drink was very bitter, but in Chinese traditional medicine treated fatigue, kidney and lung ailments, and prevented illnesses. It took the Chinese many centuries to develop processes to improve the flavor from unpalatably bitter to the taste of tea we know and love today.
There are three tea harvest periods when the first two leaves and bud are plucked by hand from the shrubs. Leaves from the first harvest in March and
April are considered the best quality. Once the leaves are plucked they must be brought to the processing plant within a very few hours. The first step is “withering” by heat which reduces moisture content while the starch begins to convert into sugar. The leaves are then soft enough to be easily rolled, releasing sap which is exposed to oxygen, beginning fermentation. Rolling takes about two hours.
At this point tea leaves may be dried for green tea or allowed to oxidize to produce black tea. This rather tricky step takes one to three hours. It is critical to stop it at the right moment or the taste will be metallic or burned. After drying, the leaves are sorted with whole leaves being the finest quality and the little bits being used to fill teabags.
Incidentally, the teabag was the brainchild of Thomas Sullivan, an American tea broker. To save money he put samples in little hand-sewn silk bags rather than sending tea in heavier boxes. These little bags were too small to allow the leaves to expand while steeping so didn’t make the tastiest tea. In 1952, the Lipton company introduced the “flo-thru” teabag. Today most tea here and in England is sold in teabags rather than as loose leaves.
Tea trees like the same growing conditions as azaleas and rhododendrons so you can grow your own tea tree. I have seen them for sale in
catalogs. Us amateur gardeners might lack the skill to successfully process the harvested leaves. The potable beverage is a real work of art.
Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home.