The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Camellia sinensis (Linnaeus) O. Kuntze


Tea Plant




Theaceae (outdated: Ternstroemiaceae; Camelliaceae) (Camellia Family); Subfamily Theoideae (Camellioidae), Theeae (Camellieae) Tribe

Forms and Subspecies


The two basic forms (or races?) differ ecologically and especially economically. Assam tea is the source of black tea, China tea of green and brown tea. Whether the Assam tea plant is a variety (Camellia sinensis var. assamica), a subspecies (Camellia sinensis ssp. assamica), or a species in its own right (Camellia assamica) has still not been definitively clarified. Most authors presume that there are two varieties: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis and Camellia sinensis var. assamica (Teuscher 1992, 629). Numerous hybrids have been produced from both sorts; crosses have also been undertaken to produce higher yields.

Various species from the same genus are occasionally used as tea surrogates (i.e., Camellia kissi in Tibet and Nepal, Camellia japonica in Japan).



Camellia assamica (J.W. Masters) W. Wight (Assam tea plant)

Camellia assamica ssp. lasiocalyx (Watt) Wight

Camellia bohea (L.) Sweet

Camellia chinensis (Sims) Kuntze

Camellia oleosa (Lour.) Rehder

Camellia thea Link

Camellia thea var. lasiosalyx Watt

Camellia viridis (L.) Sweet

Thea bohea L.

Thea cantonensis Lour.

Thea chinensis Sims

Thea cochinchinensis Makino

Thea grandiflora Salisb.

Thea oleosa Lour.

Thea parviflora Salisb.

Thea sinensis L. (China tea plant)

Thea stricta Hayne

Thea viridis L. (green tea)

Theaphylla assamica J.W. Masters

Theaphylla cantonensis (Lour.) Raf.

Theaphylla lanceolata Raf.

Theaphylla laxa Raf.

Theaphylla viridis Raf.

Folk Names


Arbre à thé, caha (Sanskrit), cajnoe derevo (Russian), cay (Hindi), cha, châ (Hindi), ch’a, chai, châ’î sabz (Persian), charil, gur gur cha, herba thee, kaiser-thee, ojandonnassame tzshe, syamaparni (Sanskrit), tè, tea plant, tea-shrub, teebaum, teepflanze, teyila (Malayalam), têyilai (Tamil), théier, tzshe noky



The earliest written reference to the tea plant is contained in a document from 221 B.C.E., according to which the Chinese emperor Tschingschi-huang-ti had introduced a tax on tea (Temming 1985, 9).

Legend has it that Bodhidharma, a disciple of the Buddha, brought tea from India to China together with the Buddhist teachings (ca. 519 C.E.). There, it was enthusiastically received and passed on to Southeast and East Asia. The first handbook on tea was written by the Chinese Lu-Yu (740–804).

In 801, the Buddhist monk Saichô brought the tea plant to Japan (Okakura 1979, 34). The Zen monk Esai wrote the first Japanese book on tea (and its healing properties) during the early thirteenth century (Iguchi 1991).

The European Engelbert Kämpfer provided the first botanical description of the tea plant after visiting Japan in 1712. Tea arrived in Europe in 1610, when Dutch merchants brought it from Japan to Amsterdam (Gilbert 1981). The very first European description of the beverage, in Johan Neuhof’s Reisebericht [Travel Report] (1655– 1657), praised its psychoactive effects:


The power and effect of this drink is / that it dispels immoderate sleep; but afterward those in particular feel very good / who have overburdened their stomachs with food / and have loaded the brain with strong beverages: for it dries and removes all other moisture / and dispels the rising vapors or fog / which provoke sleep; it fortifies the memory / and sharpens the mind. (In Temming 1985, 14)



An oversized tea plant in front of a tea field and a typical Chinese pagoda. (1669 copperplate engraving, printed in Amsterdam)



Botanical illustration of the Chinese tea plant. (Engraving from Pereira, De Beginselen der Materia Medica en der Therapie, 1849)




The tea plant is originally from the triangle of countries formed by South China, Assam (northeastern India), and Cambodia. Today, it is planted in almost all tropical and subtropical regions of the world. The economically most important areas in which the plant is cultivated are in China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. Growing areas in Australia (North Queensland), KwaZulu-Natal, East Africa (Kenya), southern Brazil, the Caucasus Mountains, and the Seychelles (Mahé) are also gaining in importance. The place that is most renowned for its tea is Darjeeling, a small country in the Himalayas that culturally is a part of Nepal but politically is a protectorate of India (Vollers 1981).

“The spirit of tea is like the spirit of the Tao; it flows spontaneously, wanders here and there, and resists every compulsion.”






(1986, 9)




The tea plant is usually propagated from cuttings, although it can also be grown from seed. The plant requires an average annual temperature of 20°C and a minimum of 1,300 mm of precipitation. The plant does not require any particular type of soil (for more on cultivation, see Franke 1994, 85–94). The first harvest can be had three years after propagation, but large harvests will not be produced until after six to seven years. The plant is harvested throughout the year, sometimes at short intervals (ten to fourteen days).



This evergreen tree can grow as tall as 10 meters; in cultivation, it is maintained as a bush some 1.5 meters in height. It has elliptical, dentate, and leathery leaves that can grow as long as 10 cm. The flowers have five white petals and yellow pistils. The fruit is in capsules that may be monolocular, bilocular, or trilocular.

Psychoactive Material


—The young leaves (folia theae, thea folium); the best qualities are from young, small leaves from sorts that are planted in favorable altitudes (Darjeeling).


The processing method determines the type of tea. Green tea consists of unfermented, dried leaves (thea viridis folium), black tea of fermented leaves (thea nigrae folium), and oolong (also known as white or brown tea) of semi-fermented leaves.

Steps in processing include plucking, drying using hot steam or wilting, rolling of the wilted leaves, fermenting, and firing or roasting.

Preparation and Dosage


Tea is prepared by brewing the leaves in boiling or hot water, resulting in a simple infusion. Steeping time varies by sort. Darjeeling tea should not be steeped for longer than one minute, while heavily fermented black teas can be steeped for up to three minutes and oolong teas up to ten. With green teas, the amount of time is dependent upon the quality. The best sorts (e.g., Japanese gyokuro) require only thirty seconds, and they can be reinfused several times. Black tea should always be prepared with water that has reached a rolling boil, fine green teas should be brewed with hot water that is only between 60 and 70°C. Steeping tea for too long a time releases the bitter tannins.

Dosages of tea vary among individuals. Some people can tolerate up to thirty-five cups of tea per day, while others can handle little more than one cup at breakfast. One tea bag per cup yields approximately 60 mg of caffeine. The yield is lower with loose tea (only about 40 mg of caffeine is obtained from the same weight).

The renowned Tibetan butter tea, which is also made in Mongolia, is prepared from brick tea (pressed black tea leaves bound together with ox blood). Shavings from the brick are boiled in a mixture of milk and water (1:2) and flavored with rice, ginger (see Zingiber officinale), orange peel, various spices, and salt. Finally, a piece of yak butter (not rancid butter, as is often incorrectly stated) is added to the souplike tea. The entire mixture must then be churned in a special tubular vessel until an emulsion results.

Tea is sometimes combined with other plants to alter its aroma. Moroccan tea, a mixture of green Chinese tea and the North African nana mint (Mentha x nana), is quite typical. This tea is brewed strong and heavily sweetened (in Morocco, it is drunk primarily during usage of kif; cf. Cannabis sativa). In Yemen, tea is aromaticized with twigs of Catha edulis. In eastern Asia, oolong tea is often mixed with the flowers of Chrysanthemum spp.

A number of plants have been or are utilized as stimulating tea substitutes; mate (Ilex paraguariensis) is an especially popular alternative. Ilex cassineIlex guayusaIlex vomitoria, other Ilex species, coca (Erythroxylum coca), and Ephedra spp. have also been used. The African rooibos tea consists of the leaves of the leguminous Aspalathus linearis (Burm. f.) R. Dahlgr. ssp. linearis, which is devoid of caffeine and other stimulating constituents (Rehm and Espig 1996, 257*).


One of the many cultivated sorts of the tea plant that was bred to produce Japanese green tea (Camellia sinensis cv. Yutaka midori)



A Tibetan woman making the notorious butter tea



The tea plant (Camellia sinensis) with its typical fruit capsules.


Ritual Use


The legend of the origin of tea explains both its stimulating effects and its ritual significance: A pious monk—according to some versions, Bodhidharma, a disciple of the Buddha—was constantly falling asleep while meditating in the cloister. Angered by the fact that he could not keep his eyes open, he abruptly cut off his eyelids and cast them away. The first tea plant grew from the ground where they had fallen, its leaves resembling the eyelids. Other monks witnessed this miracle, collected some of the leaves, and poured water over them. They immediately noticed the animating power of the new beverage, and from that time forward, they always drank tea before meditating (Temming 1985, 9).

Customs surrounding the use of tea, some of which exhibit marked cultic or ceremonial qualities, have developed all across the world (Goetz 1989). In China, tea was initially drunk by Taoists and Buddhists to aid them in their meditations and sexual practices. This tradition evolved into the Chinese tea ceremony (Blofeld 1986), which culminated in the Japanese tea cult:


For us, the tea cult became more than simply an idealized form of drinking; it is a religion of the art of living. Tea drinking gradually became a pretext for venerating purity and refinement, it became a sacred act through which host and guest came together to create the greatest bliss. (Okakura 1979, 35)


The tea path (cha-no-yu) is a true entheogenic ritual in which a ceremonial master not only prepares the substance but also determines the spiritual direction of the circle. At the beginning of the ritual, which is conducted in a special house (teahouse) or a room furnished especially for the occasion, incense sticks (joss sticks based on aloe wood, Aquilaria agallocha) or special mixtures of various fumigatory substances (see incense) are burned. The tea is prepared in a ritual fashion: Powdered green tea (macha) is added to hot water (approximately 60°C) and whipped with a tea whisk in a tea vessel made of stone (chawan) until it froths. The dosage per person is “three and one-half sips.” The guests must ritually wash themselves before the ceremony (ablutions) and be prepared for philosophical discussion if the occasion should arise (Ehmcke 1991; Hammitzsch 1977; Iguchi 1991; Sadler 1992; Soshitsu Sen XV 1991; Staufelbiel 1981):


Certainly, the tea path is not the path for many, even though many follow the path. Only a few knowers attain its ultimate goal—finding in the tea path a path to their true selves. They are liberated from their concerns about the transitoriness of all that is earthly, they take part in the eternal, they find their way back to nature, because they are in harmony with all living beings. (Hammitzsch 1977, 125)


Similarly to the manner in which wine has shaped Occidental philosophy, Eastern philosophy has been borne on the wings of the spirit of tea:


Teaism is the art of shrouding beauty in order to discover it, and to suggest something which one does not dare reveal. It is the delicate secret of laughing softly and yet inscrutably about one’s self, and is thus the good mood itself—the smile of philosophy. (Okakura 1979:19)


Tea has long been prepared as an aphrodisiac (cf. Stark 1984, 109*) and plays an important role in the Chinese and Japanese arts of love (Soulié 1983).

The Japanese name for a tea mortar is cha-usu. This word also refers to a particular aspect of erotic play: The man lies on his back, and the woman squats over him and places his “tea pestle” (kine) into her “tea mortar” (Heilmann 1991, 46). In many Taoist and similarly erotic rituals, drinking tea is a required practice.

Tea leaves are an ingredient in the initiatory drink of the Afro-American Candomblé cult (see Madzoka medicine).



Tea has influenced not only the Taoist and Zen Buddhist philosophies but also the associated arts (Soshitsu Sen XV 1991). For example, there are numerous depictions of Taoist saints drinking tea.

There are also many Chinese and Japanese marriage pictures and other erotic representations (shunga) that depict often intimately intertwined lovers drinking tea as they are having sex (Heilmann 1991; Marhenke and May 1995*; Soulié 1983). These erotic interludes are often shown taking place in the teahouse (following the tea ceremony).

The Japanese tea path has produced countless artifacts, especially those intended for use in conducting the ceremony (Ehmcke 1991). In 1989, the Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara produced a motion picture entitled Rikyu, the Tea Master. The film clearly portrays both the subtleties and the difficulties of the tea path (the film music was composed by the Japanese avant-gardist Toru Takemitsu).


A Taoist saint drinking tea while riding a dragon through the fields of bliss. (Chinese woodcut)



Although this American band calls itself The Tea Party, it is likely they are referring not to true tea but, rather, to a cozy Cannabis session. It is difficult to imagine that this cover illustration is meant to represent the effects of a tea party. (CD cover 1993, EMI Records)


“Tea is better than wine, for you drink it without inebriation.”




Medicinal Use


Before tea began its triumphant march through the world as an agent of pleasure, it was used primarily for medicinal purposes. In traditional Chinese medicine, the “foam of liquid jade” is regarded as an excellent panacea. It was first mentioned as a medicine in a Chinese herbal from the sixth century and was recommended particularly for people who slept too much (Leung 1995, 241f.*). In the Chinese literature, tea was attributed with the following properties:


promotes the circulation of blood into all parts of the body; aids clear thinking and mental wakefulness; promotes the excretion of alcohol and other harmful substances (fats and nicotine) from the bodily organs; strengthens the body’s resistance to a broad spectrum of diseases; accelerates the metabolism and the absorption of oxygen by the organs; prevents loss of teeth; cleans and invigorates the skin, which contributes to the maintenance of a youthful appearance; prevents or slows down anemia; purifies the urine and promotes its excretion; resists the effects of the summer heat; is good for the eyes and makes them more shiny; promotes digestion; soothes discomfort in limbs and joints; prevents harmful mucous secretions; alleviates thirst; combats tiredness or attacks of depression; enlivens the spirit and brings about a general feeling of well-being; increases life expectancy. (Blofeld 1986, 209)


In Japan, “newborn tea”—gyokuro, literally “precious dew,” referring to the first harvest of the year—is generally attributed with potent healing properties and is regarded as a rejuvenant. Many Japanese drink green tea together with a shot of sake or whiskey (alcohol) when they have a cold.

Strong infusions of tea are suitable for external application in treating skin ailments (athlete’s foot, skin eruptions, inflamed abrasions).



Depending upon their source and fermentation process, tea leaves contain 0.9 to 5% caffeine (previously: theine or teine), which occurs freely or bound with glycosides; 0.05% theobromine; some theophylline (C7H8N4O2); the purine derivatives xanthine, methylxanthine, and adenine; 5 to 27% tanning agents (tannin, polyphenoles, gallic acid, and catechin derivatives); and chlorophyll (only in fresh or unfermented leaves). Also present are vitamins (A, B2, C, D, P, nicotinic acid), minerals (e.g., manganese), and carbohydrates (dextrin, pectin), as well as traces of essential oils, which are responsible for the aroma (the fresh leaves contain some four to five times as much essential oil as dried or fermented leaves; Aleíjos 1977, 103). The greatest amounts of essential oil are found in the so-called flying tea from Darjeeling (the first harvest of the year, which is exported by air freight; cf. Vollers 1981).

“One drinks tea to forget the noise of the world.”








Because of the often high amounts of caffeine it can contain (up to 4.5%), tea has strong excitant and stimulant effects. The tanning agents are strongly astringent and “tanning” and are used as dyes in tanning hides. The stimulating effects of tea manifest themselves more slowly than those of coffee (see Coffea arabica) but also persist longer, as the caffeine often must first be liberated from the bond to the tanning agents and the glycosidic compounds. The tannic acids form toxic alkaloids and stimulate the digestion of fats. The essential oil has euphoriant as well as calming effects upon the nerves (Aleíjos 1977, 106; Blofeld 1986, 212). The essential oil as such has stimulating effects very much like those of caffeine.

Japanese studies on the pharmacology and pharmacokinetics of green tea have demonstrated that the national drink of Japan has anti-carcinogenic effects, lowers cholesterol levels, and has hypoglycemic properties. It also hinders the development of arteriosclerosis. Numerous longitudinal studies in Japan have shown that drinkers of Japanese green tea develop cancer significantly less frequently than those who do not drink tea (Blofeld 1986, 214; cf. also Scholz and Bertram 1995).

The relatively high amounts of vitamin P in tea have positive effects upon high blood pressure and heart diseases.

A recent study of the medicinal effects of black tea revealed that the hot-water extract (what is normally drunk as “tea”) has antiulcerogenic effects (Maity et al. 1995). Theaflavine has bactericidal properties (Vijaya et al. 1995).

Strong tea has general detoxifying properties and is a useful antidote for alcohol poisoning, overdoses of hashish and opium, and nicotine or heroin withdrawal (Blofeld 1986, 211).

Tea is also used in homeopathy, both as a mother tincture and in various dilutions (Thea chinensis hom. HAB34, Thea sinensis hom. HPUS78). According to the homeopathic medical description, tea is used among other things to treat stomach weakness, headaches, circulatory problems, states of excitation, and ill feelings (Teuscher 1992, 638f.).

Commercial Forms and Regulations


Tea is sold in various forms on the international market. Different qualities of black tea and green tea (sencha), including oolong from specified areas, are available. Mixtures (e.g., English tea, East Friesian tea; cf. Haddinga 1977) as well as perfumed or aromatized teas (e.g., vanilla, Earl Grey, cinnamon) are also available. The most commonly sold type of tea in the world is bag tea (black tea). There are also such specialized teas as Japanese powder tea (macha), Tibetan brick tea, Chinese cake tea, rice tea (genmaicha), et cetera (Adrian et al. 1983, Maronde 1973).

Tea is an agent of pleasure that is sold freely throughout the world and is usually classified as a foodstuff.73

“With its aroma and clear foam


Tea resembles the nectar of the immortals.


The first cup swept the cobwebs from my thoughts,


the entire world appeared in a gleaming light.


The second freed the spirit like purifying rain,


the third made me one with the immortals. . . .”








See also the entry for caffeine.


Adrian, Hans G., Rolf L. Temming, and Arend Vollers. 1983. Das Teebuch. Munich and Lucerne: C. J. Bucher.


Aleíjos. 1977. T’u Ch’uan—grüne Wunderdroge Tee. Vienna: Universitätsbuchhandlung W. Braumüller.


Blofeld, John. 1986. Das Tao des Teetrinkens. Bern, Munich, and Vienna: O. W. Barth.


Burgess, Anthony, Alain Stella, Nadine Beauthéac, Gilles Brochard, and Catherine Donzel. 1992. Das Buch vom Tee. Munich: Heyne.


Das, Minati, Joseph Rajan Vedasiromoni, Saran Pal Singh Chauhan, and Dilip Kumar Ganguly. 1994. Effects of the hot-water extract of black tea (Camellia sinensis) on the rat diaphragm. Planta Medica 60:470–71.


Ehmcke, Franziska. 1991. Der japanische Tee-Weg: Bewußtseinsschulung und Gesamtkunstwerk. Cologne: DuMont.


Gilbert, Richard M. 1981. Einführung des Tees in Europa. In Rausch und Realität, ed. G. Völger, 1:386–89. Cologne: Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum für Völkerkunde.


Goetz, Adolf. 1989. Teegebräuche in China, Japan, England, Rußland und Deutschland. Berlin: VWB. (With an essay “Der Schaum von flüssiger Jade” by C. Rätsch.)


Haddinga, Johann. 1977. Das Buch vom ostfriesischen Tee. Leer: Schuster.


Hammitzsch, Horst. 1977. Zen in der Kunst der Tee-Weges. Bern, Munich, and Vienna: Scherz. (Formerly titled Zen in der Kunst des Tee-Zeremonie.)


Heilmann, Werner, ed. 1991. Japanische Liebeskunst—Das japanische Kopfkissenbuch. Munich: Heyne.


Iguchi, Kaisen. 1991. Tea ceremony. Osaka: Hoikusha.


Kaufmann, Gerhard, ed. 1977. Tee: Zur Kulturgeschichte eines Getränkes. Hamburg: Altonaer Museum. (Exhibition catalog.)


Maity, S., J. R. Vedasiromoni, and D. K. Ganguly. 1995. Anti-ulcer effect of the hot-water extract of black tea (Camellia sinensis). Journal of Ethnopharmacology 46:167–74. (Includes an excellent bibliography.)


Maronde, Curt. 1973. Rund um den Tee Frankfurt/M.: Fischer TB.


Marquis, F., and Fr. W. Westphal. 1836. Taschenbuch für Theetrinker oder der Thee in naturhistorischer, culturlichermerkantilischermedicinischdiätetischer und luxuriöser Hinsicht. Weimar: Voigt.


Okakura, Kakuzo. 1979. Das Buch vom Tee. Frankfurt/M.: Insel.


Oppliger, Peter. 1996. Der Grüne Tee: Genuß und Heilkraft aus der Teepflanze. Küttigen/Aarau: Midena Verlag.


Sadler, A. L. 1992. Cha-no-yu: The Japanese tea ceremony. Rutland, Vt., and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co.


Scholz, E., and B. Bertram. 1995. Camellia sinensis (L.) O. Kuntze: Der Teestrauch. Zeitschrift für Phytotherapie 17:231–46. (Very good bibliography.)


Soshitsu Sen XV. 1991. Ein Leben auf dem Teeweg. Zurich: Theseus Verlag.


Soulié, Bernard. 1983. Japanische Erotik. Fribourg and Geneva: Liber.


Staufelbiel, Gerhardt. 1981. Die Teezeremonie in Japan. In Rausch und Realität, ed. G. Völger, 2:576–81. Cologne: Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum für Völkerkunde.


Temming, Rolf L. 1985. Vom Geheimnis des Tees. Dortmund: Harenberg.


Teuscher, Eberhard. 1992. Camellia. In Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed., 4:628–40. Berlin: Springer.


Vijaya, K., S. Ananthan, and R. Nalini. 1995. Antibacterial effect of theaflavin, polyphenon 60 (Camellia sinensis) and Euphorbia hirta on Shigella spp.—a cell culture study. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 49:115–18.


Vollers, Arend. 1981. DarjeelingLand des Tees am Rande der Welt. Braunschweig: Verlagsservice.


Yutang, Lin. 1960. Weisheit des lächelnden Lebens. Reinbek: Rowohlt.