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.

Montreal Tea Tour is a Must Do

Montreal Tea Tour is a Must Do

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of Americanewby tea bag

I’m becoming a tea snob. I never meant to be, but the more I learn about the herb the more selective I become about my camellia sinensis brew.

I blame Melissa Simard, owner of ‘Round Table Tours in Montreal for my growing obsession with quality tea. In early 2017, Melissa took me on a Tea Tour of Montreal, Quebec, Canada. We visited five different tea shops. I came away with a new appreciation for the evergreen shrub that grows in tropical and subtropical climates.

We met at My Cup of Tea, a narrow tea shop in Montreal’s Chinatown. Owned by Kenny Hui, Carina Vong and Leo Leung, the company sells traditional Chinese teas grown specifically for the company. I was learning that tea can be a personal experience for a tea vendor and something they personally taste before sharing with consumers.

Montreal Tea Tour 2017 Blooming tea Paris Wolfe (3)In addition to traditional tea, they carry “blooming teas.” These hand-tied balls of herbs and flowers wrapped in young green tea leaves “bloom” in hot water. Packaged individually, they’re popular as wedding favors.

Our next stop was Camellia Sinensis, famous in the tea world for operating one of few tea sommelier training programs on the continent.  The salon is small and cozy, with only about ten tables and free from the glare of electronic devices. Whip out your cellphone or laptop and risk being gonged for disrupting the aura of calming energy.

Montreal Tea Tour 2017 Camellia SinensisParis Wolfe (4)Teas served here or sold in the adjacent boutique are sourced by one of four owners who travel to the great tea-growing regions of the world.  Leaves may be single estate oolong or vintage Pu-ehr or any of their other 250 teas. Those on the tour sample three varieties – a white, oolong and pu-ehr.  A server teaches guests to “wake up” the tea leaves with a quick rinse of hot water before steeping them. A “tea wheel” similar to a wine flavor chart helps tasters find words to describe subtleties. For example, a white tea could taste a bit vegetal; perhaps a hint of spinach describes the faintly amber liquid.

This is where I had an a-ha moment. Commercial bagged tea blends will never taste the same. I won’t shun them. In fact, I’ll still drink McDonald’s iced tea. I just think of it as a different caffeine-delivery system.

Montreal Tea Tour 2017 Kusmi Paris Wolfe (5)Our third stop, Kusmi, has romantic history. It began in 1867 when a young Russian tea blender received a tea shop as a wedding present.  The business remained in his family for 80 years. After nearly disappearing in the second part of the 20th century, the Kusmi brand was reborn in the early 2000s.

The company specializes in tea blends.  A purist may snub the idea of flavored teas, but would be wise to put aside prejudice and taste the masterful blends, perfumed only with natural essences. Tea tour participants get a private tasting of eight blends. Among them are the more traditional Anastasia, a combination of black tea, bergamot, lemon and orange blossom, and the more innovative BB Detox, a combination of green tea, maté, rooibos, guarana, and dandelion and flavored with a hint of grapefruit.

A fourth stop – The Mayfair Cocktail Bar — comes about three hours into the tour, just in time to meet the need for food. Inspired by late 19th century Victorian high society, it offers a late afternoon pause to sit and regroup with a tea-based cocktail.

Montreal Tea Tour 2017 Paris Wolfe (6)The Green Velvet cocktail, for example, combines gin, absinthe, lime, cucumber with Kusmi’s gyokuro tea. Other cocktails are touched with Earl Grey, chai or kombucha.  Reinvented and swankier tea sandwiches and hors d’oeuvres are served high-tea style

The finale – the Cardinal Tea Room – is behind a red door up 20 stairs above a small independent restaurant. It’s difficult to spot unless you know where you’re going.

Again, this spot differs from earlier stops. It is French café meets tea room complete with mismatched cups and red ceramic tea pots. And, it’s wonderful. The menu offers simple scones, sandwiches and pastry that are delightful with white, green, black, oolong and other tea selections. All brews that satisfying the emerging tea snob in me.


Stopping at five tea spots, the tour takes about five hours and covers 1.6 miles of comfortable walking plus a taxi ride. Tourists visit Chinatown, the Latin Quarter, The Plateau and Mile End. The tour is available year ‘round; though busier in summer. With cupsful of warm tea it’s comforting on a drizzly afternoon. Melissa or her guides come prepared with umbrellas and bottled water. Guests are advised to wear comfortable shoes and dress for the weather.

For more information visit roundtablefoodtours.com or contact the company at (514) 812-2003 or melissa@roundtablefoodtours.com, The Glutton Guide to Montreal, a 130-page e-guide to Montreal’s food scene by Simard and Amie Watson, is available at Amazon.com.

Packaging the 2016 Herbal Tea Harvest

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

rose-hipsI’ve been preparing mint, pineapple sage, rose petals, rose hips and more so I can blend my own herbal tisanes. I’m not looking to be exotic. In fact, I’ll have more fun with the packaging than the tea blend.

The question now is how do I package? Do I put mix loose herbs into a mason jar with a fancy lid? Or do I make teabags? If I use tea bags, what kind?

To answer this question, I turned to expert, Raji Singh, brand ambassador for Newby, a line of luxury tea that is relatively new to the United States.

Question: Which is better loose leaf or tea bags?

aaeaaqaaaaaaaaloaaaajdzinzvlmtzhltnimdctndc3os05yzbhltrhotdmotfhnmu0oaRaji: Packaging is critical to preserve the character of tea and tisanes. Because of tea’s delicate and porous nature, the three enemies are heat, humidity, and odor. So before selecting the proper bagging method, the outer seal should be selected to ensure freshness. In this case, instead of a mason jar that allows light to penetrate through and dull the character and freshness of the tea, I would opt for a metal tin that can seal herbs’ freshness.

It is a common misconception that teabags are bad quality. This is not true. While tea bags can easily mask the quality inside and allow for dust, veins, and stalk to go unnoticed, a tea bag consisting of fannings – small broken pieces — from fine quality tea leaves is still a quality tea.

The problem with teabags is limited space for leaf and herb expansion. That inhibits full flavor results. While teabags are not bad, loose is better. Whole loose leaf provides more flavor and aroma because leaves properly unfurl. The ideal places leaves directly on top of the water to be strained out after steeping, or in a infuser basket that is spacious with enough holes to allow for enough water flow. Tea balls are quite restrictive.

Newby offers both loose and bagged but our Silken Pyramid bag is the most popular. Silken Pyramids “bags” allow for the quality of whole loose leaf with the convenience of teabags. The larger leaves have room to expand due to the flexible pyramid shape of the sachets, which also allows for optimal water flow.

Q: What are the best tea bags?

newby-tea-bagRaji: Two factors determine the best bagging method. First, the bag must be large enough to hold the tea and herbs, and spacious enough to hold the unfurled leaves. Second, the holes must be large enough to allow water to flow through the entire bag and all of the leaves to infuse, but small enough to hold smaller-sized leaf pieces. Too many leaves in the cup after steeping will result in continued brewing. That may lead to a very strong cup by the last sip.

Newby’s teabags hold in fannings – the very fine broken pieces of the leaf — so the bags are flatter and the holes are smaller. In contrast, the silken pyramid bags are much larger with wide holes since the leaves are larger and require more room to infuse.

Q: How quickly should we use a homemade herbal tea blend?

Raji: A well-sealed tea blend should not go stale as long as it is protected against the enemies of heat, humidity and odor. While Newby is required to provide a shelf life of three years, we have tea in our factory — for internal consumption — that was purchased more than 10 years ago and still holds its character and freshness.


After talking to Raji, I’ve decided that sourcing the perfect bag is too much work and expense. I’m going to paint the outside of my glass mason jars and fill them with loose herbal blends for tisanes. Unlike real tea leaves, herbal blends are less stable. So I’m going to present them in small amounts with suggested “use by” dates on my labels.

Packaging Herbal Tea: Presentation Matters

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America 
 20161028_145833
When I dried this year’s mint and lemon herbs for handcrafted herbal tea, I considered how to package and store my blend. I know tea should be kept in a non-plastic, airtight container. And, that the container should be stored in a dark, cool, dry place free from strong odors.  So, I eliminated the possibility of paper bags or cardboard boxes.
I also know that presentation is important in generating an emotional response.  And, as these teas would be gifts, I wanted something warm and homey.
20161028_145718Canning jars were a no brainer; they’re nearly a culinary hug. What started as a container for grandma’s homemade strawberry-rhubarb jelly or grandpa’s apple pie moonshine, has become repurposed for wildflowers at a country wedding, water at a BBQ restaurant or candles along a garden path. Mason jars are ubiquitous symbols of connection.
I will use 4- and 8-ounce jars to package herbal teas for gifting.
My creative skills don’t stop there. I’ll need lids and labels. Traditional two-part, metal
canning lids don’t work in this situation. That’s why I was happy to find Timber Tops Bamboo Storage Lids from Masontops. They’re reusable, leak-proof and made from fast-growing, highly renewable bamboo. Better yet, they add flair.
20161031_122519
The next item in my supply box is twine. I’ve found it in natural, black, blue and pink at the dollar section in Target stores as well as other craft suppliers and online. Check out your local hardware store or amazon.com if you can’t find it easily.
Finally, I need labels to identify the tea blend and year it was grown. Again, over the past months I’ve found a variety of tags in the Target dollar section… wood, burlap, and metal. These can also be found at craft and office stores. Even the canning jar company Ball sells wood hanging tags.
My favorite tags, which go well with the stylish bamboo look, have blackboard paint. I print information on them with a white chalk marker and hang them around the neck of the jar.  Viola, class in glass.

Readers receive 10% off at the Masontops store until December 15, 2016. Use the code HERBSOCIETY10.

Herbal Tea Harvest Time

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

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I’ve been thinking about Christmas since March, brainstorming what I’m going to make for family and friends. Last year I gifted baskets of homemade jams and chutneys. A handful of folks received mint syrup for their ice cream and drinks …the result of a failed mint jelly attempt.

Among other things, this year’s package may be beverage themed. It will probably include herbal cordials. And, now I’m thinking mint tea blends. For those blends, I’ve been cutting mint every few days as it’s so prolific in its sunny corner by the barn. If only the catnip and lemon balm would catch up. I haven’t yet identified my blends, but I’m collecting other herb materials like fragrant rose petals, pineapple sage, lemon verbena and more.

Chamomile maybe be prolific and boast sleepy-time properties, but I avoid it because it gives me hay fever. Then, my sleep is inspired by the Benadryl that I take to counteract it.

While loose tea is lovely in a metal tin, I’ll source paper tea bags to make brewing easier for my friends. I know they’re more likely to use bags. And, that gives a new presentation opportunity.teabag

I will design tags for the string end, something happy and fun. After all, packaging is a key part of experience. And, I’m watching garage sales and thrift stores for tins and canisters to hold those tea bags. (I may use half-pint canning jars or whatever I find in the dollar section at Target.)

As for blends, it’s hard for me to follow recipes. Those are mere guidelines for mortals. LOL.  I have to tweak things my way. And, tea blends depend on the resources. If I have more mint, I use more mint. More lemon herbs, I spike my teas with them.

I insist that my teas must be homegrown and organic. The rest will be spontaneous magic.


What do you mix to make herbal tea?

Crazy for Catnip

Crazy for Catnip

Reprinted with permission of The Humane Society of the United States *  By Arna Cohen

 

catnip To ‘nip or not to ‘nip—that is the question.

‘Tis nobler for kitty owners to follow the dictum of “just say no,” or to grant their pets the occasional sniff of medicinal herbs and, in so doing, liven up their lives?

While some might hesitate to let their cats experiment, experts agree that, for the majority of felines, there’s nothing to ponder: Life is much more interesting with catnip.

A member of the mint family, Nepeta cataria contains nepetalactone, a chemical that takes cats to their crazy place. Scientists don’t know exactly how catnip acts on the feline brain, but they theorize that nepetalactone mimics cats’ “happy” pheromones and stimulates the corresponding neural receptors.

The resulting effects are well-known: A few whiffs can make even the laziest kitty couch potato roll, rub, flip, race around the house, drool, and generally lose his dignity. Catnip revs up almost every cat species, from 400-pound lions to pint-sized sand cats. Tigers seem to be resistant—and not every domestic cat responds. It takes a while for kittens to acquire the taste; an estimated 20 to 30 percent never do.

Catnip sensitivity is hereditary, and if a cat doesn’t possess a genetic predilection for the herb, he will forever turn up his nose. It’s not that he can’t smell it; it simply does nothing for him.

For cats blessed with an affinity for the plant, it can provide variety and stimulation. It can pacify an angry cat or bring a shy one out of his shell.

But before you start thinking of the herb as a panacea for all that might ail your kitty, you need to know how your cat takes his catnip—and how he reacts to it.

Friends 009Cats get the “catnip crazies” when they sniff the dried plant and inhale the oils, but eating it has a sedative effect. ‘Nipper madness can take a few forms—the drooling fool who rubs himself in it and squints his eyes in delight; the possessed creature who claws the rug, disembowels his toy, and tears around the house; and the occasional ‘nipper tripper who becomes hyped up and territorial, swatting and growling at anyone who tries to get near. After the initial reaction, most cats mellow out for a while, staring blissfully into space.

A cat’s body language will provide clues as to whether she’s enjoying the experience

A catnip episode typically lasts 5 to 10 minutes, after which the cat loses interest. Offering more catnip won’t work; it takes up to an hour or two for her to “reset” and become susceptible again. And the novelty can wear off if she is exposed too often—so don’t overdo the revelry.

‘Nip Tips

IMG_0655The bliss-inducing catnip herb originated in Mediterranean climates and was brought to the New World by colonists as an essential part of their medicine cabinet, used in tea form as a remedy for colds, indigestion, and insomnia. Catnip cat toys were first sold in America just after the turn of the 20th century by A.C. Daniels, a specialist in veterinary medicines who offered hollow wooden balls and loose catnip to fill them. Today’s toys take every shape imaginable, from fish and mice to former presidents. Products are available in all price ranges, from a few dollars for a bag of felt rodents to double digits for a plaything with organically grown herb. Follow these tips to make sure your pet is getting the most out of her foray into catnip.

  • The quality and the freshness of the catnip have a lot to do with the intensity of the animal’s experience, says Leon Seidman, founder of Cosmic Pet Products. Low-quality catnip consists mostly of seeds and stems that may not have enough nepetalactone to stimulate a cat. If your ‘nip lover doesn’t react to an inexpensive toy, it may contain old herb or so little of it that your cat can’t detect it, says Seidman. (Or he just may have champagne tastes.)
  • Catnip’s potency fades with age, so buy it in small amounts that you’ll use fairly quickly. Catnip also loses strength when exposed to air and light; keep it fresh by storing it in the freezer in an airtight container. If you prefer to use catnip toys, you can refresh them by “marinating” them in loose catnip or spraying them with natural catnip oil.
  • Organic catnip is pesticide-free, good for cats who like to nibble their ‘nip. And cat owners with green thumbs can grow their own. A $2 packet of seeds will produce enough plants to keep a cat in nepetalactone clover all summer, with extra to dry for the dark days of winter, when we all need a little stimulation.