Humble camellia led to war

19:37, Jun 20 2013

Today there is more than the usual pleasure that goes with writing a weekly column; being alive to write it is more to the point.

Let me explain. Recently on our way home from a trip to China, Gail and I were eight hours into the flight from Shanghai to Auckland with Air New Zealand when the intercom burst into life. From it came the rather unsettling "crackle, crackle, static, mumble, mumble 'we're running out of fuel' mumble mumble" message.

I scanned the cabin for crew members but there was none to be seen. Then I spotted the nice lady from Gisborne who I'd spoken to earlier. She too only heard portions of the announcement, but at least she heard the vital bit about refuelling. We had to make for Cairns airport, in north east Aussie to refuel; that is after they'd woken someone at the airport at 4am to man the bowsers. I've never been so grateful to Australia for being there. So without Australia we'd be somewhere in the drink in the vast Pacific Ocean. And I'm left wondering, did someone forget to fill the tanks?

And why was I suffering all this travel mayhem? All in search of plants of course but not to bring back home as we're not allowed to do that any more.

No I was studying tea in China, and following the man who stole tea and took it to India back in the 1840s. I knew the history of tea in the west, which goes something like this. Britain imported tea from China in exchange for opium. The Emperor banned opium, but that didn't stop the Brits using it as a trading commodity and inflicting it on the Chinese. Eventually the Chinese got really shirty about all this opium coming in, leading to the "opium wars". When the British sent gunboats up the Yangtze, the Chinese lost control and awarded the dastardly English the concession port of Hong Kong and the continuation of the opium trade.

But the British still weren't satisfied. They were concerned the Chinese might grow their own opium, in which case they would have to pay for the tea with real money. Opium was the perfect trading commodity as it was produced very cheaply in India.


The East India Company, a private trading company that acquired India piece by piece, were hoping to make an even greater profit. If they could grow their own tea in India, they could cut the Chinese growers and traders out of the deal. They also planned to make black tea the drink of choice as that required milk and sugar, and they could supply the sugar from their estates in the West Indies. And naturally it was their ships carrying all these commodities from one part of the globe to another.

Because of their concerns the Chinese might grow their own opium, they decided to pre-empt that by stealing tea plants from the Chinese. They sent a man called Robert Fortune to steal tea and tea making technology (more on him next week). But the British were at a real disadvantage because at this stage westerners had no idea where tea came from. All they received was packages of chopped leaves and so they didn't even know for sure which plant was the source of the leaves.

It was all such a mystery; they had no idea if green tea and black tea were from the same or different plants. Most people assumed it must be from two or more plants. The fact that tea was flavoured with other plants such as jasmine only served to confuse the issue.

We now know both green and black tea come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. When you see a Latin plant name with chinensis or sinensis, it simply means Chinese. There's a big bush of it next to the historic chimney in Brooklands Park, and it should still have flowers on it as they flower in autumn. The tinsy white flowers actually smell of tea, and it's popular with bees because there's not much food around for them during this autumn season.

Seeing the tea plantations in eastern China was a huge thrill for me and full of surprises. I was astounded at the small tea gardens, some not much bigger than a suburban front garden.

In many cases little bits of flat land had been carved out of the hillsides to create terraces. It all looks very picturesque. I was also shocked by how small the tea bushes are. I'd seen photos of tea plantations in India where the workers have baskets on the backs and the bushes are shoulder high. These Chinese bushes were mostly about knee high and occasionally up to waist high despite being decades, if not centuries, old. Another shock was how wet the region is. I'd previously thought Taranaki much too wet for such a crop, but now feel we could grow it well.

Tea isn't just a drink, it's a way of life for some, and it seems tea was a major influence on society and caused a social change in Britain. Men went to coffee houses or pubs, and with the introduction of tea, women finally got power over one tiny portion of their lives. By inviting your female friends for tea you could control one small part of your day. This is why people now make a fuss about whether you should add milk first or last, because in those early days a woman was judged on her ability to make a fine cup of tea. Those were the days when the lady of the house had a locked tea caddy and kept the key about her person. I wonder what they'd think about tea bags?

Nowadays people are more aware of the health-giving properties of green tea, rather than worrying about the niceties of how you make a brew. It's a strong antioxidant and apparently breaks down fats in your digestive system. I guess that's why people drink it after a heavy meal.

Thinking of which, the banquets on our trip to China were sumptuous, but came with a few surprises. For instance when we had a meal with camellia expert Professor Gao and the regional governor, our drivers were invited to the meal. Our driver was terribly embarrassed when the governor engaged him in conversation across the room, but he coped. The meal was a continuous stream of tasty new dishes, but once we'd eaten, everyone got up and went home. There was no lingering over a final drink as we might do here. The business of eating was over and we all left the table.

I haven't mentioned the amazing camellia collection we saw with Professor Gao. He's probably the world authority on camellias and wrote the definitive book on the genus. His collection at the Research Institute in Zhejiang was mouth watering and it was all the more frustrating as we'll never see these new species in New Zealand.

Under our current rules, no new species of any plant are allowed into the country.

Oh well, at least I have some happy memories.

China is such an exciting country to visit. The people are very friendly and there's always something new to see or experience. Chinese people are now tourists in their own country and if you're at a tourist spot, someone in a passing group will say hello or ni hao, and when you respond, they immediately stop and ask where you're from. Next thing we're all having our photograph taken together as a sign of friendship. So I'm sorry to say, my ugly mug will be decorating lots of mantelpieces in China. Susette Goldsmith in Oakura wrote a fascinating book called Tea, a potted history of tea in New Zealand. $35.

Taranaki Daily News