Leaf of the Day: Of Myth and Monkey Tea

From Sweet Osmanthus tea yesterday, to Monkey Picked Tea today. It sounds so exotic doesn’t it, and thinking of the dexterity of a monkey, perfectly possible? This particular tea plant at Leu Gardens is Camellia sinensis var assamica . It’s the wild or long leaf tea which grows taller and has longer leaves then the regular tea camellia, camellia sinensis. It can achieve 30 to 50 ft, so more a tree than a bush which accounts for the legend and handy marketing story of the monkey picking.

lovely packaging, but not sure from where as image was sent to me

There are different versions of the myth, one says a villager went to pick tea leaves in a mountain, and finding the most beautifully scented ones growing out of reach high on cliffs persuaded a monkey to pick the tea for him. Others say Monks in Anxi trained the monkeys to climb to the top of the tall wild tea bushes to pick the very finest upper leaves and buds.

This, from Kasora.com’s World of Tea tells more here

In 1793, writer Aeneaus Anderson, in the company of British ambassador Earl George Macartney, travelled to China in order, to find out, amongst other things, more about tea growing. The Chinese were guarded in giving out information.

“According to historian John C. Evans’ Tea in China: The History of China’s National Drink:
‘Questions not meant to be answered were met with blank, uncomprehending stares. Tea plantations spread out to the horizon on each side of the Imperial Canal but tea harvesting, processing, and even transportation were purposely kept from view. When information was volunteered, it had to be treated circumspectly.
Once a Chinese man spontaneously offered to explain how tea was picked. He told Anderson ‘Tea growers anger the monkeys living in the branches of the tea trees. Out of revenge, the monkeys tear off branches and throw them on the ground. In this way, tea harvesters only have to pick them up.‘”
Anderson truthfully admitted he had not witnessed the monkey-harvest himself although he nevertheless accepted the story as fact. All of Europe read Anderson’s book and the monkey tea-picking legend found its way to the West. This story had a particular appeal and fascination for the Victorians, no doubt due to the furor raised by Darwin’s theory of evolution.
For over a century, children’s schoolbooks contained the story, and several generations of adults were convinced that tea was actually picked by monkeys.

Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss, specialty tea experts and writers of Teatrekker’s blog explore other possible reasons for the myth in their post Tieguanyin Anxi Monkey-Picked Tea as well as providing this lovely tea cup photo, complete with monkey

The involvement of the monkeys is still used to market teas. One supplier of Taiping Houkui Tea conjours up this analogy
“When brewed, the tea leaves, suspended or sunken, free themselves in the clear tender green water, like many a monkey vigorously stretching their neck and tails.”

Another supplier even goes as far as claiming that, despite the practice all but dying out, there is
one small remote village where they still continue this remarkable tradition. No monkeys are harmed or mistreated in order for us to bring this rare brew to you!”

Well, it’s up to you if you believe it or not.. but why is there not one photograph or at least a well trodden tourist route to this remote village to see this wonder.. I can’t help but feel that if there were such a place, the dedicated tea enthusiasts would definitely have sought it out before now.
..its a shame in a way.

Empty Wild Tea pods, which would have held 3 seeds. Leu gardens March 2009

I am thinking of making a botanical plate of either tea or soapberries for the next course submission so this is a sketchbook page and a study of some pods of the Monkey Tea, in various stages of disintegration. I particularly like the tiny black filigree shard of the pod. It’s a mysterious little object in its own right and deserves a better and bigger painting.

Wild Tea

Leaf of the Day: Preserving the Plants, Wonderful Wardians

Today, instead of researching more about herbaria which was my intention, I became completely engrossed in the lives of the plant hunters. My admiration for them grows in leaps and bounds. I have been reading amongst others a small paperback “The Plant Hunters” by Tyler Whittle which is full of very entertaining information about these extraordinary people. From the diminutive Albertus Magnus, 1193-1280, who walked all over northern Europe, dissuaded the Poles from eating each other and collected an extraordinary number of plants into the bargain, to the pirate plant collector William Dampier whose terrible cruelty earned him a court martial and who was the unlikely inspiration for Coleridge’s “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”. I was really just looking for how they transported the plants but got horribly side tracked for hours .. and hours..

However the problem of shipping live plants was of course a real headache for the early explorers. I can barely get a few leaves back from Leu without them withering to nothing, let alone a 3 month sea voyage. Many ways of shipping were tried, packing things in barrels, and wrapping them in oil cloths, suspending delicate things in nets from cabins roofs, and making elaborate sets of boxes within boxes but things could happen on a voyage, storm, shipwreck, mutiny ( as on the Bounty whose revolting crew threw the precious cargo of breadfruit overboard), the neglect of the crew, salt water damage, excessive heat, excessive cold and too much or too little light etc etc etc. Pests on board were a problem too. John Bartram sent boxes of new and precious plants from America to William Collinson in the UK and on one occasion a rat’s nest complete with young was found “amidst the ruin of plants and dead greenery”. Seeds were also sent but they were as tricky to keep in good condition as live plants. Dried plants were useful for identification and if the expedition could afford it an artist went along, but even drawings were subject to the same hazards.

Some early plant carrying boxes

The big change occurred with Dr Nathanial Ward’s accidental invention of the Wardian Case in 1829, which made transporting plants more successful, so much so that plant distribution, especially economically important plants, around the world would change.

Dr Ward had an interest in entomology and ferns but lived in a very polluted part of the docklands in industrial London, and neither the ferns nor the butterflies thrived. However he was aware of the importance of clean pure air for the survival of natural things and in his own words,
“I had buried the chrysalis of a sphinx [moth] in some moist mould contained in a wide-mouthed glass bottle, covered with a lid. In watching the bottle from day to day, I observed that the moisture which, during the heat of the day arose from the mould, condensed on the surface of the glass, and returned whence it came; thus keeping the earth always in some degree of humidity. About a week prior to the final change of the insect, a seedling fern and a grass made their appearance on the surface of the mould”

His curiosity for how long the ferns could survive in this sheltered environment (in fact for 4 years until the lid began to rust), led to the hugely important botanic/economic discovery the Wardian Case.
The success of the cases wasn’t just the fact that they were made from glass but that they were sealed and not disturbed, providing the plants with a stable climate in which to travel. If you have ever had a terrarium you will know how delicate the micro climate inside can be.

Photo of a replica Wardian Case from the National Maritime Museum here
Ward was determined to test his cases well though and so on his orders two cases were stocked with native plants in Australia. These already proven “bad travellers” were put aboard a clipper and sent to England.
Stocked with Plants notorious for their tenderness and their reluctance to leave their natural habitat they were sent on the long storm wracked voyage round the Horn. Between Botany Bay and the Pool of London the plants were subjected to variations of temperature from 20 to 120 degrees. They were rolled sideways and tossed backwards and forwards on the swell and roll of two oceans. But at the end of it all when Dr Ward went down to the quayside and opened his cases he found the plants secure, fresh and green and full of promise. His confidence in the cases was entirely vindicated”
Exerpt from the “Plant Hunters”by Tyler Whittle

The new Wardian cases in which seedlings could be planted and transported enabled Robert Fortune, who I wrote about before in regards to tea, to transport the 20,000 smuggled tea seedlings from China to Assam, to start India’s tea industry. Rubber tree seedlings, after germination in the heated glasshouses of Kew, were shipped successfully in Wardian cases to Ceylon and Malaysia to start the rubber plantations and Joseph Hooker was able to ship many new and different specimens back to Britain from his four year Antarctic voyage.
A Wardian case from Kew gardens. see hereThe Wardian Case being filled in the photograph remained in use at Kew until the 1960s when air transport and other means superseded it.

Below are two examples of the decorative Wardian cases which I particularly like for the inclusion of the cat and bird looking on, perhaps a little nonplussed at being shut out of their normal haunts.

….More on pressing plants
There is so much information on the web re pressing / preserving flowers and I am sure that many had or still have old flower presses, or like me, just make do, but an easy plant press and proper collecting instructions can be seen here from Fort Hays State university

And there is a nice PDF on how to make a pressed specimen from The Fairchild Gardens with a sample of the correct label here.
If I had time I could get very involved in developing and keeping a herbarium but I will save this delightful pastime for when I get my dream garden.

Its Saturday ………..

Leaf of the Day:More Tea, Lovely Bees..and the Untrustworthy Orchid

I spent a few hours today at the Gardens taking slightly different routes. With all the clearing of undergrowth and general tidying up, some of the usually overgrown parts are accessible and today I found some new trees and went “off path” by the lake shore and in amongst the trees in the South Woods. If you don’t venture off path you will miss things like the Midnight Horror tree, the Wax Jambu, and one of yesterday’s finds the Looking Glass Tree. When/if I have more time I will draw my own map of the gardens, but here is a shot from the wonderful Google Earth (don’t you just love to fly around the world with them!).

It makes the Gardens look so neat and compact that it is hard to believe that almost every week I find the odd lost person, looking for the exit. But there are 50 acres and over 3 miles of paths.
So today I wandered from top right to top left all along the shore and then down to bottom left in amongst the many winding paths of the South Woods, which are just visible amongst the trees. You can understand why I am there so long, especially as I am stopping to look at everything as I go. The formal Rose Garden shows so clearly here in the centre here but is somewhere I seldom visit.

So, short of time today, just a couple more drawings of the lovely tea plant and two photos from today with the bees with the tea flowers. They were so busy they didn’t even notice me.

I am very very fond of bees.
Given the very worrying recent decline in their numbers I feel we should all have a hive in the back garden. My parents kept bees. Not only are they wonderful and endearing creatures, they are vital to our planet’s well being and ours too. Without their tireless pollination a third of our food crops would die, to say nothing of the wild flowers and trees that the animals rely on. To be without them is unthinkable. Here is an extract from the recent book “A World Without Bees” by Alison Benjamin & Brian McCallum, who were looking into the causes of the decline in the bee population. Partly to blame in America may be the factory farming attitude to commercial bee keeping where bees are shipped by the lorry load to pollinate crops all over the country.

“They are driven thousands of miles on the backs of huge trucks from the far corners of the United States, their hives stacked five-high. Half of all the 2.5 million honeybee colonies in the US make this annual cross-country trek from as far afield as Massachusetts in the east and Florida in the south.

They are even flown in from Australia to boost the numbers for the pollination task. It’s hard not to see an analogy with other migrant workers and their plight.

The writers compare this with their own back garden hive;

This intensive, migratory beekeeping is a far cry from the hobby we pursue in our small back garden in south London. The only move for our bees was from the apiary where we collected them to the spot by the wall where their hive has sat for a couple of years. From this sheltered location, they happily forage from spring right through to the end of autumn for nectar and pollen among the parks, gardens, railway sidings and tree-lined roads that dot the Battersea landscape. In the process they make enough honey to keep us and them well fed throughout the year.

There is something magical about watching your bees return home after a hard day’s foraging on a balmy summer evening. For many urban apiarists who work all day in an office, they are an antidote to the stresses of city life. Creating a rural idyll in a corner of a housing estate was our small way of trying to reconnect with nature. It fulfilled something we knew was missing from our lives, a feeling we couldn’t quite put our finger on, but is now being termed “nature-deficit disorder”.

You can read more of the extract from the book here and I will be back with more bee related things next week.

This morning I happened to glance at the orchid and suddenly there behind my back with no warning or fanfare was a open flower. It was still tightly wrapped yesterday. I just knew this would happen. I am going to be away for 2 days and by the time I get back the wretched thing will no doubt have opened up completely, my opportunity for some flower-opening sketches missed. Untrustworthy indeed and I know I am not the only one who thinks orchids are a bit suspect.
I am away for two days.. we are having a weekend break to see the sea.. yippee…

Tea Camellia, Flower and Pod

Leaf of the Day: Tea and Tornadoes

We are on tornado watch today, looking out for “tornadic activity”. I had to go out but was careful not to wear my red shoes and Toto had to stay at home with Ant, although it is just the season to whisked away on some exciting holiday adventure. I don’t think we did actually have a tornado just very blustery heavy rain so it wasn’t too bad. It’s shaken a few leaves down and I am sure there will be some fallen fruit at the Gardens when I go tomorrow.

On my last visit to Leu I collected a couple of tiny seedlings from the ground around the Tea Camellias,Camellia sinensis. I would be so pleased if one of these grew. These and the Lipstick tree, which at the moment is looking glorious with its red spiky pods, were the first plants that Pedro wanted me to see in the Garden…the tea of course because I am British and true to form, we do drink lots of tea. I have drawn a leaf and pod before here and I wrote a little bit about tea and my complete ignorance that the tea I drink is from the leaf of a camellia. At the moment it is in full bloom and so pretty, the small flowers are very delicate and the whole bush is alive with bees, so I wanted to make a few more studies while I can.

There is so much to write about tea, its history, its complicated and precise preparation, the rituals and very individual ways of drinking it: black, white, with or without sugar, lemon or not, tea bags or loose leaf, brewed in a tea pot, in a cup, served in a mug, in fine bone china, etc… etc…all so personal.

The tea-plant originated in southern China, and was thought by the Taoists to be an ingredient of the elixir of immortality, a belief still held dear by many British people today. It was claimed to relieve fatigue, delight the soul, strengthen the will and repair the eyesight The Buddhist monks drank tea to keep awake while meditating and there is a rather gruesome legend which says the tea plant grew from the eyelids of Bodhidharma who cut them off in disgust at his own weakness in falling asleep during a particularly long meditation. He thew them down on the ground and from the eyelids sprang the tea plant, a gift to us all to aid alert meditation.

On a more lyrical note there are several Chinese poems about tea translated by Martin Tai here This a beautiful poem from the Sung Dynasty about the making of tea written by Su Dong Po, with a note by the translator.

Fetch water from the river to brew tea
Living water must be boiled with living fire
I fetch deep clear water by the Fishing Rock
A big bucket saved the moon into a jar for spring,
A small scoop divided the stream into a bottle for the evening

This poem has a distinct style, it described the essence of tea brewing: tea must be brewed with living water, with out it one cannot extract the full aroma of tea. Dong Po knew this very well indeed. I lived at Fu Sa county for a while, and did fetch water from the river to brew tea; the color, aroma and taste were excellent on all three counts. That location also produced the best tea in the world, probably due to its water. Brewing tea with such water enhanced the aroma. Even cloth washed with this water looked extra clean and white, this is an indication how light and clean the water was.”

Ah yes, how very important the water is! Tea made with limestone filtered water of Linconshire tasted so different from the tea brewed with soft Yorkshire water. My father used to long to get back to a “good” cup of tea after visiting our relatives in Leeds.

The painting is of one little seedling complete with its pod. I doubt this one will survive having been out of the water for too long. I feel guilty. I have put it in pot with the others to salve my conscience. Tomorrow a flower and maybe a pod.


Tea Camellia Seedling

Leaf of the Day: Moujean Tea, Tea and Butterflies

I went to the garden today and cycled along the beautiful lakeside roads with some autumn colour here and there and the lakes waters still and placid. Despite the dull and chilly weather, today is a very good day. It is also bonfire night in the UK when we would have been eating parkin, toffee apples and baked potatoes, if we could ever get the bonfire hot enough for long enough. Sparklers would be sparkling with the occasional hot spark landing on bare flesh and unruly Catherine wheels detaching themselves from wooden posts to tear around the garden.
I should really have drawn the Firecracker plant but today I was walking through the herb garden and decided at last to get round to drawing the very beautiful little herb, Moujean Tea Nashia inaguensis. This little bush is so delightful. It has dainty little scented leaves, not more than 1/2 inch long, and tiny flowers. ..and of course you can make tea from it.

It originated on the rocky outcrops of the Caribbean islands, in particular from its namesake island, Inagua in the Bahamas.
It likes a sunny, well drained but well watered position. This shrub has small, scented leaves and they say the leaves have a vanilla or Earl Grey Tea taste when made into tea. I am chewing a leaf as I write this, and trying to decide how I would describe it. The leaves are very hard and rough, definitely slightly bitter and aromatic but very pleasant. The flowers with a sweet and spicy scent are followed by equally tiny orange fruits which can be used in the tea too. Bees love this plant and it attracts the beautiful previously endangered butterfly the Atala butterfly, Eumaeus atala.

Image and info from University of Florida here

This lovely thing needed the coontie plant to thrive, so the recent reintroduction of the coontie for landscaping has helped its re-generation. It is very beautiful, a basic black and orange with highlights of metallic greens and iridescent blues.
That is the very pretty and useful Moujean tea for you. It also makes a lovely bonsai because of its tiny proportions and if you have a scent or herb garden, this would be a must here in Florida, tea and butterflies.. a very pleasing combination.


Moujean Tea

Leaf of the Day: Tea Leaf and Seed Pod

A small, new, tea leaf and a seed pod, just splitting open to reveal a fat round seed inside. A drawing for Pedro who took me to see the tea plants at Leu Gardens the other day. I have to admit I didn’t really know what a tea plant looked like, despite years of seeing the PG tips lady picking tea on the box, and I had no idea it was one of the camellia family, camellia sinensis. Shame on me, the amount of tea I drink. This leaf is new and bright green with a reddish stem and smooth edges whereas the older leaves are slightly toothed and much darker green.
This pod has two seed chambers where others have three. I will be making a few more drawings as they are delightful shapes. The young leaves (top 2 and the bud) are harvested, rolled and fermented (oxidised) before they find their way to the teapot as black tea. Green tea is made with unfermented leaves. Amazing! The regular supermarket tea is not very good here. It’s very weak and each bag is individually wrapped with an annoying tag, but at least we have not had it served to us with salt water yet.

This funny little drawing started as I was trying to balance the pod and leaf on the top of a couple of pieces of paper torn out of a sketchbook which were propped up on my drawing board. I thought they looked nice just as they were so that’s how I drew them.
I have just had a memory of tea chests, weren’t they wonderful?

Tea leaf and Seed Pod