Though tea trees (known botanically as Camellia sinensis) have grown in India and Indochina for at least several thousand years, the Yunnan Province in China is said to have had the world's first cultivated tea tree, from around 2700 B.C. The concurrent legend of a Chinese Emperor's discovery of tea as a pleasing drink because of the accidental wind-drift of dried tea leaves into a cup of hot water may be apocryphal, but it is known that Emperor Shen Nung was an amateur herbalist known for chewing on leaves and roots to test their effects -- hot tea may merely have been a by-product of his research.
Whichever the cause, the drinking of hot tea began in China almost five thousand years ago. India developed its own tea tradition around 500 BC. Korean and Japanese envoys and Buddhist priests visiting China in the 6th century AD brought the drink back to Korea and Japan, where the hot drink soon became the center of elaborate ceremonies that still exist to this day in both countries.
Though Marco Polo had made mention of Asian tea in his 13th century writings, tea first came to Europe from Asia in the early 17th century on ships of the Dutch East India company. In Germany and Paris, the use of tea blossomed, but then quickly faded. In Russia, however, hot tea rapidly became a national drink, with huge caravans bringing loads of tea to Moscow overland from China.
The use of tea in Britain exploded in the 1660s. In 1662, the Portuguese wife of King Charles II introduced the ceremonial drinking of tea to the English Royal Court. In 1650, merchant Peter Stuyvesant brought a shipment of tea to the Dutch colonies in America, specifically to the city of New Amsterdam -- by 1700, America was the world's major importer of tea, consuming even more than England.
Did tea create the United States of America? One of the many causes of the 1776 American Revolution was the exorbitant taxes the colonists had to pay the English King on imported tea.
Iced tea appeared in the US in the hot summer of 1904 at the St. Louis World's Fair -- a tea seller found no one buying his hot tea, so he dumped ice into his vats to compete with the cold drinks of neighboring booths.
For centuries, there was only one way to make hot tea: tea leaves were placed in hot water in a tea pot and the mixture strained into cups. The tea infuser, a metal ball with tiny holes that was filled with tea and used to make individual cups, became popular in the 19th century, mostly in Europe. The tea bag was the next step -- 20th century tea merchants in New York City, giving out samples of tea in small cloth bags, were surprised to find tea drinkers were actually dropping the small bags into hot water. Patents were developed for bags made of paper, and voila, the tea bag was born in 1953.
Most of the commercial tea grown today comes from India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya, with some from China, Indonesia, and Argentina -- Portugal and Greece have the only European growers. But the word 'tea' seems to have become a universal word, with only slight phonetic differences, in almost every language in the world.