A plant of empire. While a quintessentially English drink nowadays, and well known for being grown in India, tea has its roots in the history of empire. Originally found and imported solely from China, the East India Company moved to prevent a Chinese monopoly on the product by smuggling the plant, and the secrets of its cultivation, out of China and into India. Soon, tea became established as a profitable export for landowners.

The story


Caffeine is present in many plants. They use it to deter insects, and to disrupt the germination of other plants that might otherwise compete with them. In tiny quantities added to flower nectar, caffeine even seems to help bees to remember their way back to the flower. But caffeine is also a drug with strong effect on humans as a stimulant and aid to concentration. Most cultures use plants containing caffeine as a social lubricant.

across cultures

No gathering in West Africa would be complete without kola nuts (which were the basis for cola drinks); the yaupon or ‘Indian tea’ of southeast USA and yerba maté of south America are both brewed from the dried leaves of caffeine-rich species of holly.

Coffee, made from the roasted beans of a dainty little tree that originated in Ethiopia, was popularised initially by Arab traders. And then… there is tea. Just the word is enough to make true addicts and aficionados, feel suddenly thirsty! Pleasingly astringent and slightly bitter, tea is grown-up and energising.

tea make-up

Tea is made from the leaves of a shrub which probably originated in southwestern China and has been domesticated and drunk there for more than 2000 years. Green tea is made directly from the dried leaves, while black tea is made from leaves that have first been allowed to wilt and oxidise.

becoming fashionable in Europe

Chinese tea became fashionable in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Dry tea, which is very light in weight, was packed in the holds of ships together with cheap porcelain to act as ballast. The porcelain, or ‘china’ as it became known, became a commodity in its own right, and its popularity inspired Josiah Wedgwood in the mid-18th century to establish his Staffordshire factory,  which exported teapots and crockery all over the world.

But China still had a hold over the tea itself. Spotting a business opportunity, the British East India Company established a secret mission to smuggle tea plants out of China to break its monopoly. Those plants became the basis of the Indian tea industry; land was offered to any European who agreed to cultivate it for export. The price dropped and by the late 19th century tea had become a pick-me-up that everyone could afford.

Listen — Tea Rakae Jamil

Explore more

Want to delve deeper into the world of trees and plants?

Check out author Jon Drori's beautifully illustrated works, Around the World in 80 Trees and Around the World in 80 Plants - intertwining botany with history, culture and folklore. Both are available from all booksellers or via Jon’s website. Jon has very kindly offered a 25% discount with the voucher code 80JONDRORI.

Click below to listen to original music by Rakae Jamil, alongside spoken text by Jon Drori created in response to Tea, Iconic Plant and commissioned especially for PoliNations. Narration by Jade Samuels. To listen to the music by itself. click the link further up the page. 


Listen — Iconic Plant Tea Voiceover with Music Composition

All Iconic Plants


A journeying plant. Although a common sight in British orchards and gardens today, the apple actually originated in Kazakhstan! Like so many goods before it, the plant journeyed to the UK via the Silk Road. The apple’s prevalence is even more surprising when you consider its inability to self-pollinate; since the seed of an apple won’t replicate its parent, the only way to replicate an apple is to graft a new one.

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A plant of identity and protest. Historically, ‘pansy’ has been used as a derogatory term for gay men - one of several horticulturally derived slurs. Over time, the name has been reclaimed as a celebration of diversity and sexuality: throughout the 20th century numerous freethinking movements have used the term, including the drag ball scene of 1920s - 1930s New York, in which performers were referred to as ‘pansy performers’ because of their colourful clothing.

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A plant of pragmatism. Long seen as a symbol of sorrow due to its drooping branches, the willow also tells a story of resilience, healing and strength. One of the few trees that can be bent without breaking, willow trees are known for their association with crafts and weaving, but they also have a long history of healing. The medicinal properties of willow bark, which contain a chemical used in aspirin, have been used for centuries.

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A plant of resistance and tenacity. The ultimate survivor, Amaranth was first used by Aztecs in rituals involving food created from the plant. Subsequently outlawed by the Spanish conquerors the plant became a symbol of resistance against the invaders. It survived their repression and continues to be grown across the world today.

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A plant of wellbeing. Throughout history, lavender has been used to soothe, calm and alleviate stress. Highly fashionable in the Victorian era and into the 20th century, the scent can evoke strong memories among the older generations in particular. The plant itself, and the oil derived from it, has multiple uses across perfume, cooking and herbal medicine. Its healing qualities are known to have been used as far back as Ancient Egypt!

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An ancient plant. Ferns are one of the most ancient plants found across the globe and believe it or not played a vital part in the globalisation of the world as we know it! As a central ingredient in coal, which fuelled the industrial revolution, the humble fern had a key role to play in getting us to where we are today.

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A plant of the economy. Originating in central Asia and Turkey, it was the introduction of the Tulip to Holland in the 17th century which subsequently caused the world’s first asset bubble. During this period of so-called ‘Tulip mania’, the plants became a luxury item: the price of bulbs soared until they peaked and subsequently came crashing down, leading to serious financial repercussions.

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A plant of poetry. Throughout history the rose has featured in literature and mythology from across the world, and has come to represent many things: love, war, purity and friendship among others. In a happy reflection of cultures coming together, it’s only in hybridising with the Chinese rose, that the English Rose came to flower for as long as it does now.

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