The Origins of Camellia Sinensis – Better Known as Tea!

Whether you like to relax with a soothing cup of tea or find yourself doing a little stress-baking these days, Chef Laurie Bell offers some tea history and tea-infused recipes to make your day.

2 leaves and a bud brewedTea. Do you prepare it from loose leaf? From a teabag? Drink it plain? With milk, sugar or lemon? Do you drink green, oolong or black tea? There are so many styles of tea and ways to drink it. And there are lots of ways to cook and bake with tea, too!

Let’s explore the origins of tea and see how tea can be used as an ingredient in recipes.

There are over 5,000 years of tea history to explore, so this is just a drop in the teacup.

Around 2700 BC, Emperor Sheng Nong was sitting under a tree waiting for his water to boil. He was also known as the Divine Cultivator and credited in China for developing agriculture and herbal medicine. So, it is no wonder that he knew boiling water made it safer to drink. When a leaf fell into his water pot, an amazing aroma drifted through the air as the water turned a spring green hue. After tasting this intriguing infusion, tea was discovered!

In China, like most countries through history, as tea was introduced, it was originally quite expensive and rare, so it was consumed mainly by the rulers and the royal court. It was used as a form of medicine, a form of nutrition, and a form of money.

Tea originally was also blended with herbs, spices and vegetables as a form of nourishment, and today’s flavored and blended teas have a basis in that ancient tea history.

Tea was an integral part of Buddhist monks’ prayers as this beverage kept them awake for their long hours of meditation and also kept them calm and serene. It was this aspect of tea that Japanese monks studying in China took back with them to Japan around 800 AD.

Camellia Sinensis tea plant with flower

Camellia Sinensis tea plant with flower.

It was the early 1600s when Europeans first started trading tea with China and to a lesser extent, with Japan. Trade with western Europe was originally by sea while trade with Russia was overland – the Silk Road trading routes by camel caravans.

The Dutch and Portuguese were the first western Europeans to trade tea with China. Of course, this was green tea. Oxidation to turn green tea into oolong or black tea had not yet been discovered.

It was the Dutch who first introduced tea into the American colonies – at their colony of New Amsterdam – which eventually became New York.

But now – let’s explore ways to use tea as an ingredient in recipes.

Tea Shortbread Cookies

Tea Shortbread cookies.

Tea can be used in cooking and baking in several forms: ground dry as a spice or herb (in brownie and cookie doughs, cake and muffin batters, in truffles, cream cheese, fruit spreads, in brining liquids, spice rubs, smoking meats, to flavor mayonnaise, etc.); infused into a liquid (for sauces sweet and savory, ice creams, distilled spirits, fruit and wine punches, etc.); brewed (used as a brine, stock for soups, deglazing, sauces, cooking rice and pastas, as a poaching liquid for tea marbled eggs, seafood, poultry, fruit; in syrups, sorbets, etc.).

Here are two recipes to get you started: Crazy Chocolate Tea Cake and Tea Shortbread Cookies. Both can use grain stone-ground at historic Colvin Run Mill.

Author Chef Laurie Bell is a Certified Tea Specialist at Great Falls Tea Garden, LLC. She regularly presents tea-related programs at the Park Authority’s historic Colvin Run Mill. Visit her website at

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About Fairfax County Park Authority

About Fairfax County Park Authority HISTORY: On December 6, 1950, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors created the Fairfax County Park Authority. The Park Authority was authorized to make decisions concerning land acquisition, park development and operations in Fairfax County, Virginia. To date, 13 park bond referenda have been approved between 1959 and 2016. Today, the Park Authority has 427 parks on more than 23,000 acres of land. We offer 325 miles of trails, our most popular amenity. FACILITIES: The Park system is the primary public mechanism in Fairfax County for the preservation of environmentally sensitive land and resources, areas of historic significance and the provision of recreational facilities and services including: • Nine indoor RECenters with swimming pools, fitness rooms, gyms and class spaces. Cub Run features an indoor water park and on-site naturalist • Eight golf courses from par-3 to championship level, four driving ranges including the new state-of-the-art heated, covered range at Burke Lake Golf Center • Five nature and visitor centers. Also nine Off-Leash Dog Activity areas • Three lakefront parks including Lake Fairfax, Lake Accotink and Burke Lake, with campgrounds at Burke Lake and Lake Fairfax. The Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole at Lake Fairfax, Our Special Harbor Sprayground at Lee as well as an indoor water park at Cub Run RECenter • Clemyjontri Park, a fully accessible playground in Great Falls featuring two acres of family friendly fun and a carousel, as well as Chessie’s Big Backyard and a carousel at the Family Recreation Area at Lee District Park • An ice skating rink at Mount Vernon RECenter and the Skate Park in Wakefield Park adjacent to Audrey Moore RECenter • Kidwell Farm, a working farm of the 1930s-era at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, now with historic carousel • Eight distinctive historic properties available for rent • A working grist mill at Colvin Run in Great Falls and a restored 18th century home at Sully Historic Site in Chantilly • A horticulture center at Green Spring Gardens in Annandale • Natural and cultural resources protected by the Natural Resource Management Plan and Cultural Resource Plans, plus an Invasive Management Area program that targets alien plants and utilizes volunteers in restoring native vegetation throughout our community • Picnic shelters, tennis courts, miniature golf courses, disc golf courses, off-leash dog parks, amphitheaters, a marina, kayaking/canoeing center • Provides 263 athletic fields, including 39 synthetic turf fields, and manages athletic field maintenance services at 417 school athletic fields. PARK AUTHORITY BOARD: A 12-member citizen board, appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, sets policies and priorities for the Fairfax County Park Authority. Visit for Fairfax County Government's Comment Policy.

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