1. Family: Theaceae Mirb. ex Ker Gawl.
    1. Genus: Camellia L.
      1. Camellia sinensis (L.) Kuntze

        Tea is a shrub grown to produce a beverage made from its leaves. It is appreciated for its stimulant properties and health benefits, and as the centre of social rituals such as the Japanese tea ceremony and British teatime. Two varieties are recognised; Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (Chinese tea) and C. sinensis var. assamica (Assam tea, Indian tea). For centuries it was thought that black and green teas came from different plants. In fact they come from the same species, but black tea is fermented.


    Kew Species Profiles

    General Description

    Tea is one of the most important non-alcoholic beverages in the world, and over three million tonnes are grown annually.

    Tea is a shrub grown to produce a beverage made from its leaves. It is appreciated for its stimulant properties and health benefits, and as the centre of social rituals such as the Japanese tea ceremony and British teatime. Two varieties are recognised; Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (Chinese tea) and C. sinensis var. assamica (Assam tea, Indian tea). For centuries it was thought that black and green teas came from different plants. In fact they come from the same species, but black tea is fermented.

    Species Profile
    Geography and distribution

    The origin of tea is not clear. Camellia sinensis var. sinensis is probably native to western Yunnan, while C. sinensis var. assamica is native to the warmer parts of Assam (India), Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and southern China. 'Wild' tea plants can be found growing in forests, but these may be relics of past cultivation.


    Overview: An evergreen shrub, which can grow up to 17 m high. In cultivation, it is usually kept below 2 m high by pruning.

    Leaves: Bright green, shiny, often with a hairy underside.

    Flowers: Scented, occurring singly or in clusters of two to four.

    Fruits: Brownish-green, containing one to four spherical or flattened seeds.


    Camellia sinensis var. sinensis is hardier than Assam tea, and has relatively small and narrow leaves. Its leaves are used to produce green tea and China black tea.

    C. sinensis var. assamica is much taller in its natural state (than when cultivated) and can grow into a loosely branched tree to a height of about 17 m. It is a less hardy variety with larger, rather droopy, leathery leaves, which are used to make Assam (Indian) black tea.

    Threats and conservation

    It is not clear whether a truly 'wild' Camellia sinensis plant still exists.

    Camellia sinensis has been considered an invasive pest species in a nature reserve in Tanzania. There are also reports of it spreading into Madagascan forests where it may have detrimental effects on the regeneration of native forests which are important lemur habitats.

    Uses Early uses of tea in China

    In China, tea has been used as a medicinal infusion, for chewing and as a pickle for over 4,000 years. There is written evidence from the T'ang dynasty in AD 650 that tea was being cultivated in most of the provinces of China and that the process of making tea was well established.

    Tea in Japan

    Tea was introduced into Japan in about 600 AD by Buddhist priests returning home after studying in China. During the 8th and 9th centuries its use was widespread in courtly and monastic circles and a tea culture developed. By the 1330s  onwards, all Japanese social classes drank tea.

    Tea and social interaction

    It is has been suggested that tea spread so quickly, and was absorbed into so many different cultures, because of the way it is served - its preparation gives the chance for social interaction and the development of elaborate ceremonies. By the early 1800s, in the heyday of the East India Company, Britain was drinking its way through nine million cups of tea a year. Today, in Britain alone 165 million cups of tea are drunk a day, which equates to 62 billion cups a year; over three million tonnes of tea are produced annually, with India being the largest tea producing country, growing nearly 30% of the world’s tea.

    Medicinal uses

    In China, the medicinal effects of tea have a history dating back almost 5,000 years. The use of tea in traditional Chinese medicine is well documented and it is suggested that it could be used as a cure for over 200 illnesses.

    Tea is not an important medicine in the main medical traditions of South Asia. Medicinally, tea has been most used as a stimulant, as an astringent lotion which may be used as a gargle or injection, for some digestive problems and to reduce sweating in fevers. In Tamil Nadu, tea leaves have been used homeopathically for mania, paralysis, nervousness, neuralgia and sleeplessness.

    Tea's stimulant effects are caused by xanthines such as caffeine. Caffeine is included in small doses in some over-the-counter medicines for its stimulant effect, and is often combined with medicines that treat pain, such as aspirin. An infusion of tea leaves was once used as a remedy for insect bites.

    Too much tea?

    Excessive intake of caffeine can cause headaches and anxiety. Regular consumption of large amounts of caffeine, aminophylline or theophylline by breastfeeding mothers can cause irritability and poor sleeping patterns in the infant.

    Drinking large amounts of theophylline and aminophylline can cause many side effects, including heart problems such as palpitations, sickness, insomnia and convulsions. Toxic effects are more likely to occur when theophylline and aminophylline are taken at high doses or together with certain other medicines.

    It has been reported that there may be some link between cancer of the oesophagus and excessive tea drinking and the resulting high consumption of condensed tannin compounds. Drinking tea may have diuretic effects, largely due to the caffeine, and tea may also inhibit the absorption of iron in the gut.

    Active compounds in tea

    The last decade has seen huge interest in tea's medicinal properties. Tea contains the compound theophylline, which is used in a licensed medicine for the treatment of respiratory diseases such as asthma.

    Tea also contains flavonoids, compounds reported to have anti-oxidant properties and which may be beneficial to health, such as in the prevention of heart disease and cancer. Tea flavonoids are also reported to reduce inflammation and to have antimicrobial effects.

    Some studies suggest that tea may help prevent tooth decay. Tea is also used in some cosmetic products for its astringent effect. The chemical composition of tea may vary depending on a number of factors, such as the conditions in which the plant is grown and how the leaves are processed.

    Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

    The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life worldwide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

    Two collections of Camellia sinensis seeds are held in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank based at Wakehurst in West Sussex.

    See Kew’s Seed Information Database for further information on Camellia sinensis seeds


    Tea has been grown from seed at Kew, as well as being brought in as young plants. The tea bushes growing outside in the Woodland Glade were planted in 1992 and have proved to be hardy, surviving snow and winter temperatures of -8˚C.

    Mulch is applied around the bushes to encourage healthy growth, and in the spring they are fed with a controlled-release fertiliser. The soil they are grown in has a low pH, which suits tea as it requires acid soil. The bushes are watered during long dry spells.

    The plants are slow-growing and produce white flowers in the autumn.

    This species at Kew

    Tea bushes can be seen growing in the Woodland Glade near the Rhizotron and Xstrata Treetop Walkway.

    There are over 60 specimens of Camellia sinensis in Kew's Economic Botany Collection. These are available to researchers by appointment. 

    Dried specimens of C. sinensis are held in Kew’s Herbarium. Details of a specimen collected in Mozambique in 2007 can be viewed online in Kew's Herbarium Catalogue.

    Cambodia, China, India, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam
    It is not clear whether a truly 'wild' plant still exists.

    Tea contains caffeine, theophylline and aminophylline, which can cause undesirable side-effects if consumed in large quantities.

    A major beverage which has given rise to a variety of social conventions in different parts of the world (such as tea ceremonies in Japan, and the concept of a 'tea break' in Britain); also used medicinally as a stimulant.



    Found In:

    China South-Central, China Southeast

    Introduced Into:

    Andaman Is., Argentina Northeast, Bangladesh, Borneo, Cambodia, China North-Central, East Himalaya, Ethiopia, Gulf of Guinea Is., Japan, Korea, Mauritius, Réunion, Seychelles, Tibet, Trinidad-Tobago

    Common Names


    Camellia sinensis (L.) Kuntze appears in other Kew resources:

    Date Identified Reference Herbarium Specimen Type Status
    Hu zhong-hui [242], China K000731804
    Xiao Bai-Zhong [4214], China K000731805
    Xiao Bai-Zhong [4672], China K000731806
    Li Zhen-yu [891829], China K000731808
    Hasimoto, H. [468], Japan K000731809
    Timberlake, J. [5294], Mozambique K000614024
    Hu, S.Y. [016], Fujian K000894803
    Hu, S.Y. [6180], Hong Kong K000894812
    Hancock, W. [53], Zhejiang K000894813

    First published in Trudy Imp. S.-Peterburgsk. Bot. Sada 10: 195 (1887)

    Accepted in:

    • [1] (2016) Phytotaxa 250: 1-431
    • [2] Chang, C.S., Kim, H. & Chang, K.S. (2014) Provisional checklist of vascular plants for the Korea peninsula flora (KPF) . DESIGNPOST
    • [3] Mostaph, M.K. & Uddin, S.B. (2013) Dictionary of plant names of Bangladesh , Vasc. Pl.: 1-434. Janokalyan Prokashani, Chittagong, Bangladesh
    • [4] (2012) Korean Journal of Plant Taxonomy 42: 222-246
    • [5] (2011) Bothalia, A Journal of Botanical Research 41: 41-82
    • [6] (2008) Journal of Economic and Taxonomic Botany 32: 403-500
    • [7] Nelson Sutherland, C.H. (2008) Catálogo de las plantes vasculares de Honduras. Espermatofitas . SERNA/Guaymuras, Tegucigalpa, Honduras
    • [8] Flora of China Editorial Committee (2007) Flora of China 12: 1-534. Science Press (Beijing) & Missouri Botanical Garden Press (St. Louis)
    • [11] Dy Phon, P. (2000) Dictionnaire des plantes utilisées au Cambodge . chez l'auteur, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
    • [13] Govaerts, R. (1999) World Checklist of Seed Plants 3(1, 2a & 2b): 1-1532. MIM, Deurne
    • [15] (1980) Flore des Mascareignes 31-50: 1. IRD Éditions, MSIRI, RBG-Kew, Paris


    • [9] Cicuzza, D. & Kokotos, S. (2006). The invasive potential of tea: naturalisation and spread of Camellia sinensis in natural and logged forests of the Amani Nature Reserve.
    • [10] Van Wyk, B. (2005). Food Plants of the World. Timber Press, Oregon, USA.

    • [12] Schoorel, A. F. & van der Vossen, H. A. M. (2000). Camellia sinensis (L.) Kuntze. In: van der Vossen, H.A.M. & Wessel, M. (eds), Plant Resources of South-East Asia No. 16. Stimulants. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, the Netherlands. Pp. 55-63.
    • [14] (1995) Flora of Ethiopia and Eritrea 2(2): 1-456. The National Herbarium, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia & The Department of Systematic Botany, Upps
    • [16] Hill R. M., Craig J. P., Chaney M. D., Tennyson L. M. & McCulley L. B. (1977). Utilization of over-the-counter drugs during pregnancy. Clin Obstet Gynecol 20: 38194.


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