A Brief History of Jasmine Tea

Jasmine with Flowers Green Tea (ETS image)
Jasmine with Flowers Green Tea (ETS image)

It’s probably safe to say that the possibilities for flavoring tea are bounded only by the imagination. But there are a few flavored teas that have become tried and true favorites over the years. One of the most famous of these is probably Earl Grey, which is typically made by flavoring black tea with oil of bergamot, a citrus fruit. Then there is Lapsang Souchong, another variation on black tea that’s made by smoking tea leaves over a pine wood fire.

Then there’s jasmine, which might not be the most popular flavored tea, at least not here in the West, but it certainly has its share of adherents. Jasmine is a fragrant flower, which just happens to be the national flower of Indonesia, Pakistan, and the Philippines. The genus Jasmine numbers about 200 species in all, which can be found in parts of Europe and Africa, in addition to Asia.

Trying to sort out who first thought of flavoring tea leaves with jasmine flowers is probably as much of an exercise in futility as trying to determine who first decided to turn tea leaves into a beverage. But some tea histories provide a little bit of reliable background on the matter.

For what it’s worth, Wikipedia claims that the jasmine species used to flavor tea was introduced to “China from Persia via India” at some point during a four-century span two thousand years again. Which is not exactly narrowing it down. Supposedly jasmine was used in tea by the fifth century, but didn’t really become popular until about a thousand years later when Western countries took up tea drinking.

In The Art and Alchemy of Chinese Tea, Daniel Reid remarks that the fourteenth century emperor Chu Chuan, who was deposed after a short time reigning, took up more scholarly pursuits and wrote an important book called A Guide to Tea. In addition to advocating a change from tea bricks to loose tea, he wrote about ways to prepare “flower tea” with various blossoms, including jasmine.

In The True History of Tea, authors Victor H. Mair and Erling Hoh remark that some four centuries later “the Manchu court also popularized tea scented with flowers such as jasmine,” as well as other blooms and note that “To this day, Beijing, remains a bastion of devoted jasmine tea-drinkers.” Though there are apparently those who suggest that this is due to the poor quality of the drinking water there rather than the popularity of the tea itself.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

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