Tea is the common name for the plant, Camellia sinensis. If you were to take the leaves of this plant and steep in them hot water, you would create an infusion of tea (Camellia sinensis). This is what most people refer to as tea, and this is the most consumed beverage in the world. If you steep another herb in hot water, then you would make an infusion specific to that plant. Example: lavender flowers steeped in hot water produces a lavender infusion. Can you make lavender tea? No, this is not correct terminology per herbalists.
An infusion is when you mix off-boiled water (boiled water that is allowed to cool for 30-60 seconds) with the aerial aspect of a plant, meaning any part of the plant that grows above ground: seeds, flowers, and leaves. This part of the plant is very easy for the hot water to penetrate and extract the soluble phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are active components of botanical medicine, and these compounds produce physiologic responses in the body. The longer you steep, the stronger the infusion.
Roots/rhizomes (and bark) are different; they are more dense and harder for water to diffuse through. The phytochemicals are locked into the root; simply using hot water is not enough. Roots medicine making requires a 10-20 minute simmer to effectively extract the water-soluble phytochemicals. This is no longer referred to as an infusion, but instead a decoction.
Back to the tea, or as we now know it as an infusion of Camellia sinensis leaves. There are differences between white, green, and black tea- but they are all from the same plant!
White tea is when the herb is harvested in the spring; this small window makes it the most rare form of tea. During this time the plant has tremendous growth potential. All of the energy from the root is put towards healthy growth, and expansion. It makes sense that during this time the plant has the most beneficial antioxidants/phytochemicals, specifically Epigallcatechin gallate (EGCG). This is a plant molecule that is arguably the most studied plant compound in modern botanical research. White tea contains the least amount of caffeine (~20-40mg/cup compared to ~120mg/cup coffee).
*Adding milk to tea will bind and inactivate EGCG, I advise to avoid adding milk.
Green tea is harvested throughout the summer months and is the most bountiful. The plant continues to grow through the summer but not at the rate it does in the spring. Therefore, Green tea has less EGCG than White Tea. Meanwhile caffeine concentration increases throughout the summer, because there is more time to synthesize caffeine via the enzyme caffeine synthase (~40-60mg/cup).
Black tea is harvested in the late summer/fall period. At this juncture, the plant recognizes its yearly life cycle is coming to an end, and funnels its energy back into the root system. You may have guessed at this point that the EGCG is going to be lowest, and highest in caffeine (~60-80mg/cup).
Oolong and Pu’erh tea’s also come from Camellia sinensis, but there is a unique processing technique employed. Oolong tea is a green tea oxidized in a specific way, consider it a halfway point between green and black tea. Pu’erh tea is an aged and fermented form of green tea
You may see different types of green tea on the market: gunpowder, sencha, matcha, etc. These are all Camellia sinensis, however they grow in different environments and are processed differently which yields slightly different flavors. One of my favorites, matcha, is from Camellia sinensis grown low to the ground in the shade- this environment pushes the plant to make different plant molecules. Matcha holds the highest concentration of theanine, an inhibitory neurotransmitter used in supplement formulas to promote relaxation. Imagine that, a relaxing stimulant, sign me up!
Next time you pour yourself a cup of tea, practice mindfulness; consider what those leaves have been through and how they are going to nourish your body.
In an upcoming post we will explore the benefits of other botanical infusions and how to get started making your own synergistic blends.