Flowers have been a time-honoured ingredient in fine teas for over a thousand years. Jasmine-scented green tea is the most well-known in the West, of course. It is one of the original Chinese scented teas, traditionally crafted by hand in a meticulous and laborious process. But as oranges are not the only fruit, jasmine is not the only flower to entice tea drinkers with floral delights.
Flowers have been used in tea making for thousands of years in China, the homeland of tea. Magnolia, chrysanthemum, magnolia, lotus flowers, even roses are part of many notable, time- honoured blends you may never have heard of. What better way to welcome spring, as you glory in the beauty of fresh spring flowers, than to drink flowers in your teacup as well?
Why try traditional teas?
Traditionally, flowers are added, not to the finished tea, as they are today, but as the tea leaves are rolled and dried. It is a painstaking, days-long infusion, with thousands of buds laid on the tea. In the case of jasmine tea, the tea is stored for month, then the blossoms are laid out late in the day, waiting from them to bloom at night. These hand-picked, carefully scented teas have little in common with their frowsy, flamboyant modern cousins.
Potpourri teas, as I call them, are popular nowadays. Dried petals thrown in with candied bits of anything-you-like to make new tea blends for the bored consumer with a restless palate. These bejazzled teas are often ham-handed in terms of flavour, using a bombardment of spices, herbs and dried fruits to disguise the flavour of inferior tea.
Teas made in the traditional manner, however, allow you to taste the tea leaf as well as the flowers, balancing their perfume with the particular varietal of tea plant, and the skill of the tea maker.
Not Just Jasmine
Here are five traditional teas you may not be familiar with, but will definitely help you welcome in spring:
- Tie Kuan Yin
- Osmanthus oolong
- Magnolia oolong
- Rose Congou
- Violet Tea
The first floral tea I’m going to suggest is one that doesn’t have any flowers in it at all. Tie Kaun Yin, also known as Iron Goddess, is an oolong made from tea leaves that have an incredible floral scent.
(An oolong tea is not quite as light as a green tea, and not as dark as a black tea. Oolongs occupy a wide spectrum of colour, scent, taste and body, from floral and bright to dark and woody. They are hard to define, but much loved in all their many incarnations.)
Tie Kuan Yin is both a cultivar—a particular variety of tea bush—and a process. The most famous Iron Goddess is made in the Taiwanese style. The leaves are picked and processed in such a way as to preserve as much of their floral scent as possible to produce a delicate cup. It’s got a unique mouthfeel, though, when brewed properly: milky and silty, almost as if very fine chalk had been turned liquid. Many oolongs have this creamy texture on the tongue but I’ve noticed it’s quite pronounced in a good Tie Kuan Tin.
Tie Kuan Yin is often an eye-opener for people who are used to heavy black teas. It shows the incredible range of flavours and scents that can come right from the leaf, before you add in a single flavouring. It’s called a gateway tea with good reason.
This both hard one is hard to say and hard to find. It’s also likely unfamiliar to those who don’t eat a lot of Chinese cuisine, but this is my very favorite floral tea. Perhaps my favourite tea ever.
This tiny, bright yellow flower is often likened to a peachy flavour, but I find it much more like butter biscuits and sweetened milk. A hint of geranium, maybe. In China it is highly prized and is used in jellies, jams, cakes, and liqueurs. It’s also known for its sedative properties and for easing digestion (but then again, so is all tea). The level of antioxidants in osmanthus flowers approaches that of green tea, and so may be similarly beneficial in terms of reducing inflammation, boosting the immune system and supporting better aging. It’s also a sedative, doubling down on the relaxing effects of theanine already present in the camellia sinensis tea leaf. The scent of osmanthus flowers was proven in one study to decrease the motivation to eat, which is a good or a bad thing, depending on your point of view.
I’d drink this for the taste alone, but I do love the relaxation that follows a cup of Osmanthus oolong. It’s a tea I drink on a Sunday afternoon when I read a book, and the world is for a while the most wonderful place.
Magnolia is often the first tea I offer guests as an alternative to jasmine. Magnolia offers a gentle shift and a chance to distinguish subtle but real difference without taking you in an entirely different direction (like, for example, a vibrant and tart hibiscus.)
Magnolia has not achieved the popularity of jasmine in the West and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because it’s not as strong on the nose. It doesn’t hit you with that incredible, all-encompassing, gorgeous jasmine smell. It is sweeter and more subtle when you first breathe it in, but no less delightful to sip. It’s a little warmer, with hints of pistachio and orange blossom, and with a buttery taste. That honeyed sweetness is stronger to taste, too.
Magnolia was once reserved for the royal family of China and is revered as a special gift. Modern studies have shown it has it’s uses in treating anxiety in menopausal women and is also used to treat digestive difficulties. In traditional Chinese medicine it is associated with strengthening the lungs, feminine beauty and personal growth. Sign me up for all three.
Like many oolongs, magnolia tends to be sold in as rolled oolong, or in little balls, and thus benefits from several steeping as the leaves unfurl. I tend to brew magnolia oolong at around 90°C (195°F) with a large amount of leaf, then re-steep the same leaves in the tea I’ve just made. This strengthens each brew without fear of letting it sit too long to get bitter. It also encourages movement of the liquid through the leaves. I end up with a very yellow, rather thick-looking concoction that is quite flavourful.
If this sounds fussy, just wait until you have a work problem that’s stalled in your mind. Get up and pour your tea between two vessels back and forth, never mind about any little spills, until it seems right. If the process doesn’t help, maybe the tea will.
Rose scented teas appeared in China at the same time as jasmine scented teas, and they were produced in the same manner. Rose congou, however, is typically a black tea, whereas jasmine is usually green or white tea. The process is the same: the petals are laid upon the tea leaves to absorb their scent. Except that a black tea requires more withering, and so allows the essential oils to coat the tea leaves as they wither.
As tea was introduced to Europe, rose congou (a variation on gong fu or kung fu) was very popular in England at afternoon tea, whether for the sweetness or the familiarity of the roses, one can only guess. Perhaps this is why we most often see roses scenting black tea. Or perhaps the warmth and depth of black tea is a more assertive partner to balance the power of the rose.
Tea connoisseurs often recommend against milk with this tea, but if it is brewed quite strong, I’m happy to add milk and even rosewater as a sweetener. Makes an exquisite warm cocktail with rose gin as well.
Violet Black Tea
“That which above all yields the sweetest smell in the air is the violet.” —Sir Francis Bacon
We tend to think of violets as decorating a fine china teapot, rather scenting than the tea that’s in it. Or as a perfume, or a candied cupcake topping, but not an actual flavour in itself. Violet can be somewhat soapy, after all, and so the greater association with fragrance and skincare.
Or perhaps that’s because New World violets are a different breed from the English violet, or Viola odorata – commonly known as sweet violet or wood violet. These are the violets that would have been used to scent teas in Victorian England, when violet tea was at the height of its popularity. And different again from Parma violets, which were the violet of choice in Edwardian England, and are still found in candies.
Violet is an elusive scent, as it binds to our scent receptors, first to stimulate them, then to shut them down quickly so that we cannot detect it. Then, after a few breaths, it registers in your brain as a new stimulus, and you can smell it again. Violet leaves are also traditionally used in herbal medicine, but I’m definitely not recommending a tea made of those.
If I can find violet sirop or essence, I’ll definitely buy it, but until then, violet tea is a lovely, old-fashioned seeming delight that speaks to afternoon teas of years past. It’s both novel and familiar, and tasty as well.
Murchie’s once again is where I re-discovered this nostalgic treat.
Would you like to learn about more floral teas? There are so many! And please tell me about your favourites. The more I learn about tea, the happier I am.