Chinese ‘12 Flowers of the Months Teacups’ – September/Chrysanthemum

 
 
Chrysanthemums belong to the Asteraceae (Compositae) family, which is one of the largest families of flowering plants. These flowers were first cultivated in China more than 2,000 years ago. These showy blossoms are associated with autumn and the ninth lunar month – September – which is called the chrysanthemum month.

Its Chinese name “ju” means “gathering together” because the flower looks like a petal ball. To the Chinese the chrysanthemum flower, blessed with both many petals and the fortitude to blossom in the cold days of late autumn and early winter, signifies abundance and longevity. For people about to entire retirement, the calm presence of chrysanthemums is said to welcome in a quiet life. Chrysanthemum was deemed to be one of the four honourable plants by Chinese scholars in the pastalong with plum, orchid and bamboo.

Today chrysanthemums come in a variety of shapes and petal arrangements but originally the chrysanthemum was just a small yellow flower.

After generations of cultivation, the number of varieties grew rapidly. In the Chrysanthemum Book of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), 35 varieties were noted but by the time of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the number had risen to 136. In Li Shizhen’s famous book, “Ben Cao Gang Mu”, finished in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), more than 900 varieties of chrysanthemum were listed. Today more than 3,000 varieties are blooming in China.

Just as knowledge and a taste for tea traveled from China to Japan and Korea, chrysanthemums found their way to Japan and Korea as well.

From that time onward, chrysanthemums, known as kikus in Japan, were depicted on artworks and luxury objects such as lacquer boxes, porcelain incense cases and inro ( elaborately decorated little cases that were used to carry seals for personal documents and later used for carrying medicines ) and depicted on gilded screens as lavish sprays of blossoms  or solitary blossoms, often accompanied by small birds or animals. In fact, chrysanthemums are featured on the Imperial Crest of Japan ( a 16-petal flower ) and references to the Japanese emperor are often referred to as coming from the ‘chrysanthemum throne.’

File:Japan Kouzoku Flag 16ben.svg

Chrysanthemums stated a craze in Japan for botany and gardening that extended from the upper echelons of the military elite to all levels of society. In the late 19th century at the royal family garden – Shinjuku Gyoen – in Tokyo,  a painstaking technique for training chrysanthemum plants to grow exhibition sized blossoms was developed.

This technique is called ozukuri (“thousand blooms”) utilized single chrysanthemum plants that are “trained,” for a year or more, to produce hundreds of blossoms in a massive, dome-shaped configurations or cascades of blossoms that spill down to the floor like a drapery. The technique requires every branch and stem to be painstakingly pinched, staked, tied, and generally forced to grow according to the strict rules of the tradition.    

Chrysanthemums even have a moshi and bean paste confection in their honor in Japan that is called a ‘namagashi. Yum, I love these !

 Kyoto Sagano Chrysanthemum Wagashi 京都宝泉堂 嵯峨野生菓子      http://kyotofoodie.com/chrysanthemum-namagashi   

In Chinese medicine, chrysanthemum is used to maintain healthy cholesterol levels, normalize blood pressure and improve blood flow. It is also used to sharpen hearing and vision, to calm the nerves and clear the brain. It has been proven to be of value in preventing sore throat and reducing fever. For all of its attributes, the Chinese consider chrysanthemum to be a longevity elixir,  and a perfect companion and flavor-compliment to the delicious flavor of tea.

Chrysanthemum tea can be made by adding a small quantity whole dried chrysanthemum blossoms to green or to black tea, or it is found in herbal mixtures such as Ba Bao Cha ( the Eight Treasures ) which consists of dried fruits, dried citrus peels, dried berries, dried flower petals, rock sugar and dried chrysanthemum flowers. Plain chrysanthemum flowers can also be brewed as an herbal tea by those looking for a delicate, light-flavored, caffeine-free beverage.

The verse on the back of my cup has been translated for me as such:
 one branch of yellow flowers sees the frost
 
 
 

For detailed information on the history of Chinese 12 Flowers of the Months tea cups, please read my post from January 1st, 2010.

Chrysanthemum Tea

We recently presented a talk about the history and use of Chrysanthemum tea in China on the opening evening of the annual Chrysanthemum Show at the Botanic Garden at Smith College. We also made a special herbal tisane for them to serve that evening in the conservatory to guests visiting the show. The tea was delicious and very well received – we blended white chrysanthemum blossoms, whole Tibetan baby rosebuds and warming, invigorating spices such as ginger, coriander seed, and green cardamom. Everyone was happy to have a warm beverage on a chilly, late October evening and the fact that we crafted it without caffeine for that event thrilled most in attendance

Chrysanthemum blossoms add a wonderful warm, buttery and rich flavor to herbal tisanes. The taste of the flowers is sweet but not cloying.  Please experiment with adding these lovely flowers to your own blends – they are inexpensive and a few go a long way. At one time adding flower blossoms to tea was all the rage in China – read below.

The following is a version of my part of the talk that we presented at Smith College.

Ju Hua – Chrysanthemum Tea

At one time, China was the only country in the world that possessed the secrets of tea cultivation and manufacture. China is credited with singularly discovering, refining and perfecting all of the classes of tea that we enjoy today. For centuries, these techniques and processes were held secret from the rest of the world, but eventually these secrets were exposed and today over 50 countries in the world produce tea.

But, it took approximately 3,000 years for tea to reach the pinnacle of its place in Chinese society that it enjoys today. The earliest use of tea in China was most likely as a food source, and one of the many substances, along with other forest delectables such as roots, barks, leafs, seeds, berries, etc that early man foraged for in the forests to eat. For people living in the primordial forests of southwest China, Assam India, and along the borders of Myanmar and Laos, tea leaves gathered from indigenous tea trees most likely served to augment a simple hunter/ gatherer diet.

Over time, tea was used in China in different ways before becoming the beverage we know today. Tea evolved from being:

• a medical concoction/ herbal remedy
• a bitter, stimulating brew
• a healthful tonic
• a pleasure beverage
• the essential beverage the entire Western world became familiar with in the 18th century and that we know today

During the reign of the sophisticated and cultured Tang dynasty – late 6th to early 10th century - tea was drunk as a Healthful tonic among intellectuals and artists. Tea of varying degrees of quality was available to most classes of citizens, but it was the Tang court and literati artists that elevated tea drinking into the realm of a luxury beverage to be enjoyed during indulgent and pleasurable moments of relaxation in social settings.

In Tang-era China, it was the fashion to drink tea that had been scraped from a small tea cake made of compressed, coarse leaf that had been steamed, dried, then crushed and bound with a small amount of plum juice ( to add sweetness ) and dried again. The scraped tea would have been boiled in a pot, and additional sweetness and aroma would have been introduced to the tea by the addition of other flavors, such as onions, ginger, orange peel, cloves, peppermint and salt.

Towards the end of the dynasty, the flavor of fruit extracts became popular. For the Emperor and the wealthy class, sweet flower oils – rose, jasmine, chrysanthemum – begin to be added to the tea.

During the Ming Dynasty -mid 14th to mid 17th century – tea drinking became a pleasure beverage. The first Ming emperor, Emperor Chu-Yuan-chang ( r. 1368-1399 ) decreed tea cakes to be wasteful and that production of imperial tea cakes should cease. He advocated that all tea drinkers also turn to the more natural method of infusing whole leaf tea.

As whole leaf tea did not produce the bitter brew that pervious centuries of Chinese tea drinkers had become accustomed to, Ming tea drinkers began to experiment with adding more sweetness to their cup. They disgarded the old ways ways of tea brewing of the Tang, and began to experiment by adding flowers and flower petals to the tea in their teapot.

Instead of using expensive flower oil as had been used in the past for tea for the Emperor and the wealthy, flower scented teas were now made with abundant, inexpensive flowers and flower petals, and at a price that was affordable to the middle class. Initially green tea was the choice for flower scenting, but later, when Ming tea men developed oolong and black tea, these were used to make flower scented tea as well.

Flower scented teas, such as chrysanthemum, rose, jasmine, orchid, gardenia and orange blossom, changed the nature of Chinese tea and tea drinking. From then on, the earlier styles of bitter tea were left behind, as brewing loose leaf in newly invented, small teapots gave Ming tea drinkers greater control over using the right water temperature and steeping time for each type of tea. Gone were the old boiled chunks of tea and the powdered tea of the past, and the era of thoughtful and careful tea brewing was ushered in.

China’s mythical emperor and celestial god, Sheng Nong, is attributed with being the father of Chinese Agriculture and Medicine. His widom regarding the medicinal value of plants and herbals is recorded in the Compendium of Materia Medica , and it is here that the attributes of chrysanthemum were first noted.

In Chinese medicine, chrysanthemum is used to maintain healthy cholesterol levels, normalize blood pressure and improve blood flow. It is also used to sharpen hearing and vision, to calm the nerves and clear the brain. It has been proven to be of value in preventing sore throat and reducing fever. For all of its attributes, the Chinese consider chrysanthemum to be a longevity elixir, and a perfect companion and flavor-compliment to the delicious flavor of tea.

Chrysanthemums were cultivated in China 2,500 years ago. In the Song dynasty, a book written by Liu Meng and titled “A Manual of Chrysanthemum” recorded thirty-five varieties of chrysanthemum. Later, in the Ming dynasty, author Li Shizhen wrote of over 900 varieties of chrysanthemum.

Just as knowledge and a taste for tea traveled from China to Japan and Korea, chrysanthemums found their way to Japan and Korea as well. In fact, chrysanthemums became so popular in Japan that the Imperial Family chose the emblem of a chrysanthemum blossom for their royal crest.

Some flowers scented teas, such as jasmine, gardenia and rose congou, are made by introducing fresh flower blossoms to Camellia sinensis ( tea ) leaf during the manufacturing process in the tea factory, whereby the tea absorbs the aroma from the blossoms and becomes imbued with the aroma.

In the case of chrysanthemum tea, it is made by adding a small quantity whole dried chrysanthemum blossoms to green or to black tea, or to herbal mixtures such as Ba Bao Cha ( the Eight Babes ) which consists of dried fruits, dried citrus peels, dried berries, dried flower petals, rock sugar and dried chrysanthemum flowers. Plain chrysanthemum flowers can also be brewed as an herbal tea by those looking for a delicate, light-flavored, caffeine-free beverage.

Vibrant yellow or snow white dried whole chrysanthemum flowers are used for adding to tea or for enhancing cooked dishes. Unlike some flowers that become unsightly when dried, chrysanthemum blossoms maintain a lovely dried appearance – they retain a full, frilly texture and a nice, green backside.

Most Chinese dried chrysanthemum is approximately the size of a nickel or smaller. The most popular varieties in China for tea usage are Hangzhou White Chrysanthemum and HuangShan Tribute Chrysanthemum, alleged to be a favorite of many Chinese emperors. Also highly praised is Ye Juhua, a wild growing, tiny yellow chrysanthemum that grows abundantly on hillsides. On occasion, larger yellow chrysanthemum is also used.

Besides adding lovely colors and visual interest, the flavor of chrysanthemum is sweet and light, and the aroma is enticing, and reminiscent of sweet honey. Chrysanthemum is not overly floral like jasmine or rose, and it can never be cloying. Tea and chrysanthemum are a perfect combination – they are both praised for their ability to revitalize energy and refresh the mind.

The chrysanthemum in the Chinese culture represents integrity as well as noble and tenacious personality characteristics. It blooms when other flowers have already withered, so ancient scholars likened it to people who keep their own beliefs and never fear difficulties. It is one of the four ‘honorable plants’ along with plum, orchid, and bamboo.

Today, flower scented teas are still popular in China, but they have also found a new audience here in the West.