Not Just for Teatime: The Herbal Significance of Camellias

By Matt Millage

It never ceases to amaze me how much tea is consumed daily. An estimated 2.16 billion cups of tea are drunk every day around the world, which puts it Panda_Tea_Green_Teasecond only to water in most consumed beverages (DeWitt, 2000). I, myself, have become a tea drinker over the years, and as a plant nerd, I wanted to know more about how the tea leaves were farmed. What I ended up learning is that while tea (Camellia sinensis) is by far the most well known and widely used product of the genus Camellia, it is by no means its only contribution to the herbal marketplace.

Some of you may know the genus Camellia for the wonderful ornamental show that it puts on from fall through spring. Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua have been putting on shows in USDA hardiness zones 7-9 for decades, if not centuries, in the deeper south. These species have an even more prominent herbal significance in the Eastern Hemisphere, where they have been cultivated for millennia in their native ranges.

Four species of Camellias are most widely known, and all four have both traditional and contemporary herbal uses. C. sinensis is by far the most used globally, as it produces both green and black teas. C. japonica is most often considered an ornamental plant best known for its showy spring blooms, but in its native range of Japan, it has been used as both an anti-inflammatory and a conditioner for hair and skin. C. oleifera is the source of  tea seed oil, which is used in cooking oils, cosmetics, and lubrication. Camellia sasanquaAnd finally, C. sasanqua has a long history of being used for both tea and tea seed oil in Japan, both of which go back centuries. Let us look at each of these four species in a bit more detail to better understand their contributions to both Asia and the world.

The Chinese legend of how tea was discovered is a mainstay of Chinese folklore and history. In the year 2737 BC, the herbalist Emperor Shen Nung was awaiting his drinking water to be boiled by a servant when a few leaves from a large Camellia sinensis shrub fell into the boiling water. Known for his propensity to sample new herbs, the Emperor decided to try the brew and found that it produced “vigor of body, contentment of mind, and determination of purpose” (DeWitt, 2000). Thus, the first written account of humans enjoying the benefits of caffeine was recorded. The rest of the world would have to wait a few thousand years for tea to find its way west, but after its discovery by European traders in the 18th century, it would quickly become one of the most popular drinks on the globe. Most tea-harvest-at-charlestontea production is now centered mainly in the Eastern Hemisphere, however some tea is produced in America. Several states in the U.S. have small tea growers, but most American tea is grown in South Carolina, primarily at the 127-acre Charleston Tea Plantation—arguably one of the most historic tea plantations in the country.  

Camellia japonica seeds, when pressed, produce an oil referred to in Japanese as tsubaki-abura, widely used for hair and skin care. It is very rich in oleic acid, which helps keep skin and hair moisturized. It was said to be geisha_retro_vintage_japanese_asia-1335041.jpg!dused by the geisha to remove make-up and act as an antioxidant. C. japonica is famous for its anti-inflammatory activity in the field of medicine and ethnobotany. It is reported as a bioactive plant in folk medicine of South Korea, Japan, and China. Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities of the leaves are already reported, and this plant is proved to be a source of triterpenes, flavonoids, tannin, and fatty acids having antiviral, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory activities. The seeds are also used as a traditional medicine in folk remedies for the treatment of bleeding and inflammation (Majumder, 2020).

Before the discovery of whale oil, Camellia sasanqua seed oil was used to fuel lanterns in both Japan and Korea. In fact, it was used for lighting homes, lubrication of machines, cooking oil, and cosmetics. Its use as a tea leaf persists today, with some regions of Japan and Korea preferring it to the traditional teas made from C. sinensis. Due to the difficulty of pressing the seeds, it has dwindled to a cottage industry in most regions, with some seeds now being used for many novelties of the souvenir trade, including dolls’ eyes (RBGSYD, 2012).

Camellia oleiferaNative to China, Camellia oleifera also produces tea seed oil. It is known as a cooking oil to hundreds of millions of people in east Asia, and is one of the most important cooking oils in southern China as it has a very high smoke point of 252 degrees Fahrenheit—perfect for deep frying. It has also been used to protect Japanese woodworking tools and cutlery from corrosion (Odate, Reprint Edition 1998). Sometimes also used in soap making, it is said to add a supple conditioner for the skin. Overall, the importance of it as a cooking oil cannot be overstated for large regions of Asia, as this remains to be C. oleifera’s most valuable contribution today.

While you may have to live in the Eastern Hemisphere of our globe to notice the many uses that the genus Camellia offers on a daily basis, you now hopefully have a better understanding of the many herbal benefits that it has offered humanity over the centuries. Next time you sit down to steep a cup of tea, maybe offer up a toast to the shrub that makes it all happen: the Camellia.

References

DeWitt, P. (2000, March 8). Harvard.edu. Retrieved from A Brief History of Tea: Rise and Fall of the Tea Importation Act: https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/8852211/Dewitt,_Patricia.pdf

Majumder, S. G. (2020, August 27). Bulletin of The National Research Centre. Retrieved from Springer Open Corporation Website: https://bnrc.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s42269-020-00397-7#citeas

Odate, T. (Reprint Edition 1998). “Japanese Woodworking Tools: Their Tradition, Spirit and Use” page 174. Tokyo: Linden Publishing.

Royal Botanic Garden Sydney. (2012, February 4). Internet Archive- The Wayback Machine. Retrieved from Royal Botanic Garden Sydney NSW AU: https://web.archive.org/web/20120204064125/http://www.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au/welcome_to_bgt/tomah/garden_features/blooming_calendar/Camellias

Photo Credits: 1) Green tea (Creative Commons); 2) Camellia sasanqua (Matt Millage); 3) Tea harvesting on Charleston, SC, tea plantation (tripadvisor.be); 4) Geisha (Creative Commons); 5) Camellia oleifera (Matt Millage).

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Matt MillageMatt has worked in public gardening for a little over six years and is currently the horticulturist in the Asian Collections at the U.S. National Arboretum. He previously worked at Smithsonian Gardens in a variety of capacities. Matt is an ISA-certified arborist and an IPM manager certified with both Virginia and DC.

Tamarind – Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

The tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica) is one of many tropical herbal trees. Its leaves, bark, wood, roots, and fruits have many uses. The tamarind tree Tamarindus indicais also an evergreen, long-lived landscape tree, reaching a height of 40 to 60 feet tall and a width of up to 25 feet wide. Its pinnate leaves close up at night. The branches droop to the ground, making it a graceful shade tree. A mature tree can produce up to 350-500 pounds of fruit each year. It is native to tropical Africa and is in the Fabaceae family. 

One of the earliest documented uses of tamarind was found in the Ganges Valley of India, where wood charcoal dating back to 1300 BCE was discovered. Tamarind was mentioned in ancient Indian scriptures as early as 1200 BCE. Arab physicians were reported to be the first to use the fruit pulp as medicine. It was the Arabs who named the tamarind, calling it “tamara hindi” or Indian date. It is thought that the Arabs were responsible for the spread of the tamarind through the Persian Gulf region and Egypt. There is documented use of tamarind in Egypt in 400 BCE. The tamarind was brought to the Americas by the Spanish in the 1600s. A tamarind tree was planted in Hawaii in 1797.

Tamarind-based drinksThe tamarind tree grows well in USDA Hardiness Zones 10-11 and therefore, is not commonly seen in the continental United States, except in southern Florida. It produces a showy light brown, bean-like fruit, which can be left on the tree for up to six months after maturing. The sweet-sour pulp that surrounds the seeds is rich in calcium, phosphorus, iron, thiamine, and riboflavin and is a good source of niacin. The pulp is widely used in Mexico to make thirst-quenching juice drinks and even beer. It is also very popular in fruit candies. The fruit is used in Indian cuisines in curries, chutneys, meat sauces, and in a pickle dish called tamarind fish. Southeast Asians combine the pulp with chiles and use it for marinating chicken and fish before grilling. They also use it to flavor sauces, soups, and noodle dishes. Chefs in the United States are beginning to experiment with the sweet-sour flavor of tamarind pulp. Did you know that tamarind is a major ingredient in Lea & Perrins® Worcestershire Sauce? Tamarind CandyThe fruit pods are long-lasting and can be found in some grocery stores, especially those serving Hispanic, Indian, and Southeast Asian populations. 

All parts of this ancient tree have been used in traditional medicines in Africa and Asia and have a long list of maladies that they have treated. According to Purdue’s Horticulture and Landscape Architecture Department (https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/tamarind.html), “Tamarind preparations are universally recognized as refrigerants in fevers and as laxatives and carminatives.” The ground-up seeds have been used as a poultice for boils, while the boiled leaves and flowers were used as poultices for sprains and swollen joints. The bark is astringent, tonic, and a fever reducer. An infusion of the roots has been used to treat chest complaints and leprosy. It has also been used to treat sunstroke, Datura poisoning, and alcohol intoxication. According to WebMD®, there is not sufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of tamarind to treat most of these illnesses. However, research has shown that eye drops containing tamarind seed extract do improve dry eye.

Throughout the tropical world, there are many legends and superstitions regarding the tamarind tree. Here are a few:

  • A Buddhist parable about tamarind seeds says that they are the symbol of faithfulness and forbearance. 
  • Some African tribes believe that the tree is sacred, and some Indians believe that one should not sleep under one because of the acid it “exhales” during the night.  
  • Some even believe that nothing will grow under a tamarind tree. However, Maude Grieve, in her 1931 book, A Modern Herbal, claimed that “some plants and bulbs bloomed luxuriantly under the tamarind trees in her garden in Bengal.”
  • The Burmese believe that the tree is the dwelling place of the rain god, and that the tree raises the temperature of the ground beneath it.
  • In Nyasaland, tamarind bark is soaked with corn and fed to livestock as a way of guaranteeing their return if they are lost or stolen.
  • In some Asian countries, it is believed that evil spirits inhabit the tamarind tree and building a house where it grows should be avoided.
  • In the Caribbean, old tamarind trees are believed to have spirits living in them.

The tamarind is an incredibly useful tree. The young leaves and shoots are eaten as a vegetable, and the flowers and leaves can be added to salads. The flowers are also important as a pollen source for bees. The leaves can be tamarind seed podsused as fodder for domestic animals and food for silkworms. The leaves are also used as garden mulch. 

The seeds are ground to make flour, or roasted and used as a coffee substitute or as an addition to coffee. The seeds are also processed to produce a natural pectin and food stabilizer. There are many more uses of the seeds that are too numerous to list. 

The oil produced from the tamarind is culinary grade oil and is also used in specialty varnishes, adhesives, dyeing, and tanning.

The wood of the tamarind is another example of exceptional usefulness as it is very hard and insect resistant. It makes great handles for tools and is prized for furniture and paneling. It is considered a valuable fuel source because it gives off intense heat. The branches of the tamarind are used as walking sticks. The bark contains tannins and is used in tanning hides and is also used to make twine.

Lea & Perrins Worcestershire SauceThe fruit pulp is useful as a dye fixative, or combined with sea water, it cleans silver, brass, and copper. In addition to all of these uses, school children in Africa use the seeds as learning aids in arithmetic lessons and as counters in traditional board games.

The next time you reach for a bottle of Worcestershire sauce, remember the ancient tamarind tree and its usefulness in the tropical parts of our world.

 

 

Photo Credits: 1) Tamarindus indica (JIRCAS); 2) Tamarind-based beverages; 3) Tamarind-based confections; 4) Tamarind seed pods; 5) Lea & Perrins® Worcestershire sauce (Photos 2 – 5, courtesy of the author).

References

Ebifa-Othieno, Esther, et al. “Knowledge, attitudes and practices in tamarind use and conservation in Eastern Uganda. Journal of Ethnobiology & Ethnomedicine. Vol. 13. Jan. 2017. Available from Ebscohost. Accessed 10/16/20. 

El-Siddiq, K., et al. Tamarind, Tamarindus indica. England, Southhampton Centre for Underutilized Crops, 2006. Available from Google Scholar. Accessed 10/18/20.

Grieve, Mrs. M. A Modern Herbal. Harcourt, Brace, & Company. 1931.

History of tamarind.  Available from https://www.world-foodhistory.com/2011/07/history-of-tamarind.html.  Accessed 10/16/20.

Missouri Botanical Garden. Plant Finder. Available at http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/plantfinder/plantfindersearch.aspx. Accessed 10/16/20.

Tamarind. Purdue University Horticulture and Landscape Department. Available from https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/tamarind.html. Accessed 10/18/20.

Tamarind. WebMD.  Available from https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-819/tamarind. Accessed 10/18/20

Tamarind tree. Available from https://www.permaculturenews.org/2009/02/20/tamarind-tree/. Accessed 10/16/20.

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.