Text and Photography by Bruce Richardson
If there are teas deemed too beautiful to drink, display teas would certainly fall into that category. Also commonly known as blooming or flowering teas, these works of tea art are meticulously crafted to delight all the senses as they steep, rehydrate, and bloom into the shape of a flower.
In China, display teas are referred to as Gong Yi Hua Cha, literally translated Art Flower Tea. Their origin may trace to 10th-century Yunnan Province, where early spring teas were picked, processed, and tied into various shapes for the amusement of the emperor. These artisanal teas found a new audience in the West about a decade ago, and several tea venues—such as the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City, Utah, or the Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary, North Carolina—use these colorful teas as table centerpieces during the service of afternoon tea.
To craft these tea treasures, as many as 100 individual tea leaves—white, green, oolong, or black—are methodically stitched into captivating displays that conceal a hidden blossom gathered from flowers such as lilies, jasmine, plum blossoms, golden marigold, or amaranth. As the leaves rehydrate and bloom, the hidden blossom slowly floats free from its tea-leaf nest and fills the container with color and aroma.
To watch the colorful show unfold, consumers often steep these teas in wineglasses or brandy snifters. Display teas generally do not become bitter when oversteeped, an important consideration since the leaves may be left in the glass for an hour or two.
Here are two common display teas that are easily steeped at home.
Dragon Whiskers—From Anhui Province, this black “treasure tea” is named for its bundles of black leaves bound together in colorful silk threads. The dark, twisted leaves and furry tips yield a golden infusion that has a robust aroma; a sweet, nutty flavor; and a smooth finish. Dragon Whiskers is also available as a green tea.
Hong Mudan (Black Sea Anemone)—This black display tea is crafted in Anhui Province on a remote mountain where almost every family grows tea. The anemones are made from quality, spring-picked leaves that are tied with silk or cotton threads into beautiful rosettes. Hong Mudan is meant to be enjoyed for its visual appeal as well as for its fragrance and flavor. As it brews, the rosette unfurls to resemble a sea anemone. Both the fragrance and the flavor of the liquor are sweet and delicate.
Read more about exquisite teas from China and other tea-producing countries in The New Tea Companion (Benjamin Press, 2015, elmwoodinn.com) by TeaTime contributing editors Bruce Richardson and Jane Pettigrew.