COMMON NAMES: Arbre A The, Caha (Sanskrit), Cajnoe, Derevo (Russian), Gur Gur Cha, Herba Thee, Kaiser-thee, Ojandonnassame Tzshe, Syamaparni (Sanskrit), Tea Plant, Tea-shrub, Teyila (Malayalam), Russian Tea Plant
Camellia sinensis is an evergreen tree that can grow up to ten meters in height. It is usually maintained as a bush of 1-2 meters in height when cultivated for commercial purposes. The leathery leaves can grow as long as 10 cm. The flowers have five white petals and yellow pistils (Ratsch 1998, 122).
Camellia sinensis is originally from South China, Northern India, and Cambodia. These days, it is planted in almost all tropical and subtropical regions of the world. It is particularly commercially important in China, Japan, India, and Indonesia, and is becoming more important in Australia, Kenya, and Brazil. It is usually propagated from cuttings, although it may also be grown from seed. It takes up to seven years for a tea plant to produce significant harvests (Vollers 1981 cite in Ratsch 1998, 122).
TRADITIONAL USES: According to legends, Bodhidharma, a disciple of the Buddha, brought tea from India to China along with the teachings of the Dharma. According to legend, Bodhidharma was always falling asleep while meditating. In frustration, he cut off his eyelids and threw them away. The first tea plant grew from the ground where they fell, and thus its leaves resemble his eyelids. The monks who witnessed this collected the leaves and poured hot water on them, thus making the first tea, which was consumed before meditation to allow for greater alertness and concentration. From China, tea was passed throughout Southeast and East Asia (Temming cited in Ratsch 1998, 123).
In 801, the monk Saicho brought the tea plant to Japan. There it was embraced for its healing and meditative properties, and eventually gave rise to the famous Japanese tea ceremony, an impeccably beautiful plant ceremony. In it, the leader of the circle burns specific types of incense and prepares the tea in a ritual way. The powdered green tea, known as macha, is added to hot water and whipped with a bamboo tea whisk until it forms a delicate froth. Each guest is to consume three and a half sips. Guests must ritually cleanse themselves before entering the tea house, which is not surprising, considering that the ultimate goal of the tea ceremony is to find a path to the essential self. In the ceremony, one becomes liberated from earthly attachments and is able to commune with eternity, nature, and all living beings. We do not always think of tea as a psychoactive plant in the West, as it is so commonly consumed and readily available. However, this beautiful ceremony demonstrates the powerful spiritual and ceremonial role that this plant holds (Wikipedia 2011).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: The young, small leaves of C. sinensis plants that are grown in suitable altitudes are the most powerfully psychoactive. The processing method varies depending on the type of tea which is being produced. Green tea is made from unfermented dried leaves. Black tea is made from fermented leaves, and oolong is made from semi-fermented leaves. The leaves are picked and then may be dried using steam or wilted, rolled, fermented, fired or roasted, depending on the type of tea being produced (Imperial Tea Garden 2011).
Tea is prepared by brewing the leaves in boiling water. Steeping time varies by type – a good darjeeling must only be steeped for one minute, black teas may be steeped for 3-5 minutes, and oolong teas may be steeped for up to ten minutes. Green teas require different steeping times based on quality – a top quality green tea needs only 30 seconds to steep. The water temperature must vary by type of tea as well. Black tea must always be steeped in boiling water, while a good green tea is best in hot, but not boiling water. If tea is steeped too long, it becomes bitter due to the release of tannins. Dosage will vary from person to person and tea to tea (Ratsch 1998, 122).
The Tibetan tea known as butter tea is prepared from brick tea, pressed black tea bound with ox blood, which is boiled in milk and water and flavored with ginger, orange peel, other spices, and salt. This is fortified with yak butter. The mixture is then churned in special containers until it emulsifies (Ratsch 1998, 122).
The style of tea referred to as masala chai is an Indian blend prepared with cardamom, cinnamon bark, cloves and black pepper. Ginger and other spices may also be added. The mixture is boiled in water, and milk, sugar and honey are added at the end of brewing.
Tea leaves have also been smoked on occasion, both in cigarettes, and in combination with cannabis resin, to make it more smokeable. The resulting combination is perhaps not terribly healthy, but is most certainly psychoactive (Voogelbreinder 2009).
MEDICINAL USES: Tea has been used as a medicine during its entire history of use. In Chinese medicine, it is used to improve general health and for those who sleep too much. It also promotes blood circulation and clear thinking, removes toxins and strengthens the immune system, promotes digestion, and encourages feelings of well-being and good spirits (Blofeld 1986 cited in Ratsch 1998).
In Japan, the first tea harvest of the year is considered to be a potent panacea and rejuvenating agent. It is also common to drink green tea with sake or shochu to cure colds. Strong infusions of tea may also be used externally to treat skin inflammations and irritation (Ratsch 1998, 124).
Strong tea is very detoxifying and is useful in cases of alcohol, hashish, opium, and nicotine overdose, as well as during opiate withdrawal. Tea is also used in homeopathy to treat stomach problems, headaches, depression and excitation. In Tibet, tea is said to relieve fatigue, strengthen the will, repair eyesight and lift the mood (Voogelbreinder 2009).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: Tea leaves can contain from 0.9 to 5% caffeine, as well as vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates and essential oils, depending on how long the leaves have been fermented and the area in which the tea was grown. Due to the high amounts of caffeine, tea is very stimulating, although the effects come on more slowly than those of coffee and last longer (Ratsch 1998, 124).
Japanese studies have showed that tea has anti-carcinogenic effects and is also hypoglycemic. Numerous studies have shown that individuals who drink Japanese green tea develop cancer much less often than those who do not. A recent study using black tea also showed that consumption is effective in preventing and treating ulcers. Theanine, an amino acid which is abundant in Japanese green tea has been shown to increase concentrations of dopamine and serotonin in the brain (Blofeld 1986 cited in Ratsch 1998, 124).
“Japanese Tea Ceremony”, n.d. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_tea_ceremony.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
“Tea | Camellia Sinensis Cultivating, Processing and Grading Tea.” Imperial Tea Garden. Web. 02 May 2011. <http://www.imperialteagarden.com/CamelliaSinensis.html>.
Voogelbreinder, Snu, Garden of Eden: The Shamanic Use of Psychoactive Flora and Fauna, and the Study of Consciousness. Snu Voogelbreinder, 2009.