Tea Terroir: Native Bergamot

When tariffs made imported Chinese tea too expensive for American colonists to purchase, they turned to native bee balms for tasty drinks.

Tea was once commonly shipped in pressed bricks. 
Photo by Adobe Stock/Kelly

Last year, I taught my kids about the ships, the costumes, and the tea involved in the Boston Tea Party, but I missed part of the significance of that December night in 1773. The Chinese tea that colonists were drinking — and throwing overboard — was part of a dependence on nonnative plants that connected colonists to their European homes.

After traveling thousands of miles from the only home they’d ever known, it isn’t surprising that most colonists longed for familiarity. Colonists missed indigo, which made a distinctive blue dye and had been easier to obtain in Europe. While families brought vegetable seeds with them, many of the plant products the colonists associated with home were either imported to Europe from other colonies or grown from plants that couldn’t survive in their new environment. Tea, like indigo, was one of these plants.

Any new immigrant will tell you that food is one of the elements that most soothes homesickness. When England threatened the colonists’ ability to afford a taste of home, it must’ve felt like much more than a simple loss of luxury. If the British had truly wanted to keep their transplanted colonials in the fold, they should never have severed an important lifeline that anchored these people to their past. Of course, we know that tariffs threatening the affordability of Chinese tea were the final straw for many, leading agitators, such as Samuel Adams, to call for boycotts and revolution.

Teas and Tisanes

In the late 18th century, herbs were commonly made into medicinal teas, while black tea made from Camellia sinensis leaves was an enjoyable beverage. The colonists’ notion of rebellion, coupled with their tea-drinking habits, required innovation to find a similar recreational drink. In addition to the cultivated herbs they’d brought across the sea, they began to look beyond the garden and into the wilderness. Remarkably, rather than asking native people for tips on healing plants, the colonists formed a relationship with their new surroundings based on the flavors of the native plants.

The Boston Tea Party was one of the most well known turning points leading to the American Revolutionary War.
Photo by Getty Images/duncan1890

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