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What is Tea?


Tea Basics - Camellia Sinensis

What is Tea?

Tea fields in Southeast AsiaTea is the processed leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. Camellia sinensis is an evergreen shrub indigenous to Southeast Asia that thrives in subtropic and highland tropic regions. The leaves and buds (and sometimes even the stems) of Camellia sinensis are harvested and processed in various fashions to produce the range of tea varieties available today (such as black, oolong, green, white, and pu-erh). With the popularity of herbal infusions in today’s marketplace (such as chamomile, peppermint, etc.), a whole gamut of brews (both iced and hot) have come to be referred to as “tea.” Technically speaking, however, only those beverages derived from the plant Camellia sinensis should be referred to as such. To distinguish them from true teas, herbal infusions are often referred to as tisanes (pronounced TEE-san). Americans consume more than 50 billion servings of tea annually (85% of which is on ice!).

To learn more about the manufacturing and varieties of tea, visit our section on tea manufacture and varieties.

What's in a Name?

Although tea comes from very specific botanical origins, it has come to be known by many names across the globe: cha (China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Bangladesh), chay (Turkey), chai (Middle East and Russia), chá (Portugal), tay (China - Fujian province), thé (France), tee (Germany), thee (Holland), and té (Spain and Italy). One can even trace tea’s historical journey through its linguistics. The Mandarin Chinese “cha” was the first name for tea. It followed tea through China and beyond when it spread throughout Asia in the 5th century. Much later, in 1644AD, British merchants found their way to the Fujian province of China to set up trading posts. Along with Camellia sinensis, the British exported the Fujian word “tay” to Europe, which they spelled “tea.”

To learn more about tea's globe-trotting history, visit our History of Tea.

Caught in the Act!

Tea leaves unfurlingTo many, tea is much more than the leaves of Camellia sinensis steeped in hot water – tea is also an act, an experience. Cultures across the globe have developed myriad traditions revolving around the service of tea, from the Japanese tea ceremony to the English high tea. In many ceremonies, one will often hear talk of “the agony of the leaves.” The agony of the leaves is a poetic description of the unfurling of the dried tea leaves when steeped in hot water.

To learn more about the world’s tea traditions, visit our Traditions of Tea section.