The first written evidence of using plants for their medicinal benefits dates back to the Ancient Sumerians of around 3000 BCE. In ancient Egypt, herbs are mentioned in Egyptian medical papyri, depicted in tomb illustrations, or on rare occasions found in medical jars containing trace amounts of herbs.
Through widespread trade and knowledge exchanges over the millennia, herbalism found its way to China during the Bronze Age. The native Asian plant Camellia Sinensis commonly known as tea was used in ritual offerings, eaten as a vegetable, or used in medicine until the Han Dynasty when it became a popular drink.
Birth of Tea
Chinese legends credits Shennong, whose name means the Divine Farmer, with the discovery of tea. According to legend, one fall afternoon, Shennong decided to take a rest under a Camellia tree and boiled some water to drink. Dried leaves from the tree above floated down into the pot of boiling water, creating the first ever infusion of the tea leaf. Intrigued by the delightful fragrance, Shennong took a sip and found it refreshing.
In the fourth and fifth centuries, rice, salt, spices, ginger and orange peel, among other ingredients, were added to tea. In the Tang Dynasty (618-907), tea drinking became an art form and a drink enjoyed by all social classes.
The Book of Tea, also referred to as the Classic of Tea, written by Lu Yu in 730 CE is the first known book dedicated to the history, culture, and medicinal property of tea. In The Book of Tea , Lu Yu recorded a detailed account of ways to cultivate and prepare tea, tea drinking customs, the best water for tea brewing and different classifications of tea.
Tea in the West
In the 17th and 18th century, Tea became a favorite drink of the aristocracy of Europe. The popularity of tea in England created a large trade deficit with the Chinese producers and so in 1773, the East India Company created a British monopoly on opium in Bengal, India. Despite the Chinese ban on opium imports, the drug was smuggled into China from Bengal by traffickers in amounts averaging 900 tons a year. The proceeds of the drug-smugglers was used to buy more tea in China.
Tea and the American Revolution
On December 16, 1773, a mob, angry over excessive British taxation, disguised themselves as Native American and destroyed an entire shipment of tea sent by the East India Company. They boarded the ships and threw the chests of tea into Boston Harbor, ruining the tea. The British government responded harshly and the episode escalated into the American Revolution.
John Adams and many other Americans considered tea drinking to be unpatriotic following the “Boston Tea Party.” Tea drinking declined during and after the Revolution, resulting in a lasting American preference for coffee.
Tea is the most popular manufactured drink consumed in the world. In 2010, world tea production reached over 4.52 million tons. Production of tea has become a global effort with the largest producers spanning China, India, Kenya, Sri Lanka, and Turkey.