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.