Snow Dragon

Snow Dragon — my personal fave

Two of the misnomers in the world of flora are white tea and black roses. White tea, strictly speaking, is not white. Natural black roses (not dyed ones) are not really black.

First, a quick primer on color theory. There are additive colors (such as paints) and subtractive colors (such as light rays). Additive “white” to color theorists is a total lack of color. Additive “black” is the opposite, that is, all colors combined. (Reverse those if you’re talking about subtractive colors.) These are the scientific approach to white and black.

Sometimes, though, we use “white” and “black” in a more poetic or comparative sense. White can mean “light” or “lighter than the rest.” Black can mean “dark” or “darker than the rest.” A good example is human skin pigmentation. White people are definitely not devoid of color nor the same shade as edelweiss petals. Black people are not the same shade as raven feathers. The use of “white” and “black” in this case indicates comparisons — lightest versus darkest.

Black Rose

Black Rose

Back to tea and roses. White tea is actually very light green or almost gray white and is often covered with a velvety, fuzzy down. Natural black roses are actually very dark red and easily burn in strong sunlight. (Hubby and I had a black rose bush and had to figure out a way for it to get the sun it needed but shade, too.)

The most well-known naturally black rose varietal is the Black Bacarra rose from Ecuador. The petals range from dark red to a deep plum that appears almost black under the right lighting conditions. It’s a typical “hybrid tea” rose. (According to my copy of Roses for Dummies, “hybrid teas” are long-stemmed and often non-fragrant, since they have been bred to produce large blooms, not fragrant ones.)

White Peony, also called Pai Mu Tan and Bai Mu Dan

White Peony, also called Pai Mu Tan and Bai Mu Dan

White teas (not talking about roses this time), in contrast, are often quite fragrant and have several varieties. They are just as sought after and relatively scarce. I’ve had a number of these in recent years, the latest being Snow Dragon and White Eagle Long Life, and consider them perfect for special tea moments. Silver Needle and White Peony are two of the most well-known varieties. Harney & Sons’ Winter White Earl Grey is another great choice, with a gentle oil of bergamot aroma and flavor that lets the delicate tea taste come through.

These teas have quite a history, having once been reserved for the most elegant occasions in China, according to Jon Stout, chairman of Golden Moon Tea Company. Their milder flavor, free of bitterness, grassiness, and overly strong aroma, plus the increased knowledge among tea drinkers have led to an explosion in popularity. But what are they?

White teas, just like black and green teas, are made from the leaves of the tea plant, Camellia Sinensis. They are harvested only once a year, though, unlike teas such as Darjeelings that have several harvest (“flush”) seasons per year. They are also processed more gently so the leaves remain unbroken, keeping all those beneficial chemicals such as polyphenols inside them.

Silver Tip

Silver Tip

There are lots of claims made about the health benefits of white teas. From low caffeine, to cancer prevention, to antibacterial/antiviral/antifungal activities, white tea is a “medicine cabinet in a teacup.”

Buyer beware, though. Some white teas aren’t all they seem. Some unscrupulous vendors sell green teas as whites. They also sell lesser quality whites. Both of these harm the reputation of white teas. Be sure to buy from a reputable vendor who carries high-quality, true whites — no substitutes. This is especially important to anyone drinking white tea to get one or more of the reported health benefits.

Select your white tea with care, prepare it gently (180˚ F water temp, 2 to 3 minutes steeping time), pour a cupful of that pale liquid, set it on a tray adorned with a vase and a single long-stemmed black rose, and take to your favorite “me time” spot. Then, have a perfect black-and-white tea moment. Enjoy!

Don’t forget to check out A.C.’s blog, Tea Time with A.C. Cargill!

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