Photograph by Haluk Gürkaya, National Geographic Your Shot
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A hot cup of tea is a beautiful thing, particularly when served in a Turkish tea glass.
Photograph by Haluk Gürkaya, National Geographic Your Shot

In a Thirsty World, Tea Time Is Any Time

Walk into a good tea shop and you’ll encounter shelves upon shelves of canisters, all brimming with teas of different shapes, sizes, and scents. The array can be dizzying: leaves sporting shades from bright to pale green, from mahogany to rich, deep black. And you could easily spend an hour breathing in fragrances that range from sweet to spinachy to the smell of a dank cellar.

With so much variety, you may be surprised to learn that black, green, oolong, and even white teas are all made from just a single plant species, camellia sinesis (and by tea, we mean the brewed beverage made with tea leaves. Herbal teas, also known as tisanes, aren’t actually teas at all). And with its plain-jane, oblong leaves, it’s a pretty unremarkable-looking plant, at that.

Nondescript it may be, but centuries of growers have coaxed wonders from the tea shrub. There are two main varieties of the species—sinensis (so, camellia sinensis, var. sinensis), originally developed in China, and assamica, native to the Indian subcontinent—but producers have developed hundreds of cultivated varieties, or “cultivars.”

It’s that combination of variety, a plant’s unique recipe of soil and microclimate (terroir isn’t just an attribute of wine and coffee!), and the processing that follows the harvest—whether the leaves are rolled or crushed, the level of oxidation, even fermentation—that ultimately determines whether a leaf becomes a golden monkey black, a sencha green, or a musty pu-erh. You can read more (much, much more) about different types of the world’s most popular beverage online, but Imbibe magazine has compiled a nice primer here.

So put the kettle on and peruse some of our favorite photos of tea, from vibrant slope to steaming cup, courtesy of our Your Shot community. (And if you prefer a mug of hot coffee over a cuppa, you can get your caffeine fix over at last week’s gallery, all about coffee.) Cheers!