While visiting the Atherton Tableland, I was delighted by the sight of some of the region’s glorious tea plantations. Blankets of emerald tea bushes swept across landscapes and up mountainsides. It was simply gorgeous. I had been drinking Australian tea for a couple of weeks already, and it was wonderful seeing it growing.
The first tea plantings in this region were in the late 1800s, but tea as an Australian industry didn’t really begin to take shape until the mid-1900s. Today, more than 1,000 acres of these tablelands outside Cairns are planted in tea, producing more than 3 million pounds of black tea per year.
While Australia’s tea-growing industry is only a few decades old, the history of tea stretches back nearly 5,000 years. Tea—Camellia sinensis—originated in China. Legends place its first use somewhere around 2700 B.C.—but interestingly, the legends are so mundane that scholars think it likely that they relate closely to the truth. The story goes that an early Chinese emperor instituted the practice of boiling drinking water to make it safe. Wherever he traveled in his realm, his servants would boil all the water that he and his entourage would need. At one point, in some small village, leaves blew into the boiling water, et voilà, tea was born.
At first, tea was viewed as being a medicine. The Chinese believed that it was good for headache, stomachache, and a variety of other ailments. (Actually, as caffeine is the added ingredient in many extra-strength pain relievers, it’s entirely likely that tea did help some ailments.) It appears that, by around the third century A.D., tea was being consumed daily, at least in some areas, and intentional cultivation began.
By the end of the Tang dynasty (about the ninth century), tea had gained enough importance in China to be taxed. Ritual was being developed, and tea was available in varieties, including some with added spices. It was around this time, too, that the first seeds were carried to Japan. By the 13th century, tea was well established in Japan, and the refinements of the tea ceremony were taking shape.
By the 1600s, Dutch traders were carrying tea from China to Europe. The English were soon in the game, and it was the British who carried tea culture into India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Tea consumption continued to spread, and by the early 20th century, tea growing had spread to Russian Georgia, Sumatra, and Iran in Asia, Natal, Malawi, Uganda, Kenya, Congo, Tanzania, and Mozambique in Africa, Argentina, Brazil, and Peru in South America—and Queensland in Australia.
Tea’s heritage is reflected in its name. Pretty much all the world’s words for tea come from the beverage’s name in two Chinese dialects: t’e and ch’a.
Here’s a photo of the handsome Nerada tea plantation, which I visited outside of Cairns: