Today, let’s talk about tea flowers! That is, not the general seasonal tea flowers that one may arrange for a Japanese tea ceremony, but tea flowers that actually bloom on the tea plant, Camellia sinensis.
While spring is the time of shincha (new tea), tea flowers actually bloom late in the year—from the months of October to late November, just before the plant produces seeds and goes into winter hibernation. Indeed, this time of year is sometimes called Chabana, or Tea Flower time. This seasonal word captures part of the essence of this pre-winter season and so it has been utilized by numerous haiku poets such as Shiki Masaoka. And of course, it is appropriate to us as a seasonal flower decoration in the Japanese tea ceremony (Ikebana).
Beautiful autumn sight of tea plantations in Wazuka, Kyoto Prefecture along with blooming tea flowers. Photo by Azuma Tea Garden. These humble flowers give a sort of nostalgic feel… Without words, what emotions or feelings do the tea flowers communicate to you?
Get to Know the Tea Flower
The Camelius senisis is a plant of the Theaceae family (tsubaki, in Japanese), which is the tea family, so its flowers are similar to White Camellia. In contrast, those of Camelius senisis are rather small and bloom modestly as if to hide behind the leaves. The buds tend to be cute and plump, it resembles a small round ball. The flowers have white petals that can seem thin to the point of transparency, and a cluster of yellow pistils and stamen (shibe in Japanese) spreads like a crown in the center. These flowers can grow up to 4cm in diameter with five sepals and can have 5-9 petals. The flowers are hermaphrodite (have both male and female organs) and are pollinated by bees.
Close up of the tea flower blooming. Can you spot the ants? Photo by Jimmy Burridge.
Two autumns ago, I was fortunate to be in Wazuka, Kyoto prefecture during the blooming season. I found the tea flowers to be quite delicate, I very much enjoyed their humble but elegant presence (to me, this is Japanese beauty!) especially with the morning dew…
The scent? I would say the flower has a rather gentle and subtle aroma, some describe it to be a little bit like soap (but there are many kinds of soaps so that may not be the best description!). This was mentioned in the recent onomatopeia Japanese tea article I wrote, but tea flowers have a chemical component called saponin (floratheasaponin to be specific) which has foaming properties. Hmm, may this be the connection to its soapy smell?
Tea flowers with the morning dew in Wazuka, Kyoto Prefecture.
The one aspect to note about this lovely tea flower is that for the tea farmer, these flowers may not be their best friend. The autumn and winter months are an important time for the tea bushes to store their nutrients in order to prepare for good foliage the following year. That being said, if the flowers, and then seeds are receiving a large portion of the nutrition, this will not be good for the tea leaves for making good tea. This is in fact why tea farmers actually pluck the buds off before they even open. Thus, while you may think that it would be common to come across tea flowers during the blooming period, you may only come across a couple of tea flowers. This way more nutrients stay available for fresh growth in the spring!
Some tea farmers appreciate brightening up their tea work with a pocket tea flower! Photo by Azuma Tea Garden.
A Bit About Tea Seeds
Tea flowers are pollinated by bees and once pollinated, the plant also produces seeds surrounded by a small fruit. The tea seeds have a rather short lifespan, so with time, they become difficult to germinate. At tea farms, seeds may not be collected and planted, but left as they are. Tea flowers do not tend to self-pollinate, but are naturally crossed with flowers from other plants thanks to bees and various insects that visit the flowers.
New tea plants produced from naturally crossed seeds very rarely inherit the exact characteristics of the parent tree. Because of the same genetic recombination that animals such as humans exhibit, plants grown from seeds show a combination of characteristics from the parents. (i.e., zairai). The plants that grow from such seeds vary considerably from individual to individual, in terms of growth, flavor and quality. Plants such as these are referred to as Zairai tea plants.
In the past, such as with the famous monk, Eisai, seeds were transported, planted and allowed to grow. Now, however, it is by far more common to vegetatively propagate them, which means cutting off a small branch from the parent plant, allowing it to root in a small pot and then replanting that branch that now has little roots into the field. In this way, the new plants grown from cuttings are identical to the parent plant and the quality and characteristics of a specific cultivar are kept constant.
Wazuka tea farmer Nakai-san is taking care of the cuttings of a small branch from the parent plant. In fact, I was gifted one on this special day!
Drinking Tea Flower Tea
Although it seems that there exists a delicate dance, or even antagonism between nutrient rich tea leaves and tea flowers, tea flowers are edible and can be made into a delicious, relaxing brew that is smooth and sweet. The flowers contain less caffeine in comparison to the tea leaves. Additionally, similar to puer teas, the tea flowers will age well and develop a richer, fuller taste. In Japan, tea flowers are mainly utilized for furichas (i.e., whipped teas) or blended with tea leaves (Discover more about furichas here). If you are curious, try some of these tea flowered teas! They could serve as nice gifts for the holiday season, too!
Furicha (振り茶 whipped teas):
Tea Flower Blends:
- Yokota Tea Garden: Sencha Tea Flower Blend
- Tea Farm Mitocha also makes tea flower tenboshi kamairicha
Featured image: Tea flower picking/harvesting; photo by Azuma Tea Garden.