One variety of camellia, "thea," has never lost its popularity. It is the main ingredient for tea, a beverage that is consumed more than any other worldwide except for water. Tea is also the most used plant "medicine."
Chinese legend says an emperor named Shen Nung ("Divine Healer"), discovered tea around 2727 BC when some leaves from a camellia tree floated into a pot of water he was boiling. Tea became widely popular in China during the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD). Europe adopted the beverage in the 1600's when Dutch traders introduced it. Known as "cha," the Cantonese type of tea arrived in Eastern Europe by land and the Fukien type known as te made it to Western Europe by sea.
The "Camellia" was named after a man who probably never heard of the plant. Georg Josef Kamel, an Austrian Jesuit missionary to the Philippines, provided the world with extensive information about the plant life of Asia and especially the Philippines. However, the "goddess" of flowers was not part of his writings.
The first European known to write about the camellia was a German physician named Andreas Cleyer who visited Japan in the 1680's. Japan had expelled all foreign missionaries and put stringent restrictions on what could be imported or exported. Only a few Dutch companies were allowed to continue in a small way. According to Alice Coats' Plant Hunters, Cleyer was responsible for establishing a smuggling trade. He was eventually discovered and expelled from Japan. The Japanese he had recruited to assist him paid with their lives.
When Carl Linnaeus, a philosopher and theologian, established his system for naming, ranking and classifying organisms he may have had his reasons for preferring to honor Kamel, a priest who handed out free medicines to the poor instead of a smuggler indirectly responsible for the death of his Japanese colleagues.
In 1698, a Scottish surgeon named James Cuninghame made a dangerous trip to China in the employ of the East India Company. Surviving massacres and imprisonment, he arranged to ship approximately 600 varieties of Oriental plants--including camellias--back to England. European nurserymen were thrilled with his finds.
Tea soon became as popular in England as it was in the Orient. In the late 1800's, tea saved the plantations of Ceylon from financial disaster after an epidemic of coffee rust. The top three leaves of each camellia thea shoot are harvested, dried, and called, respectively, the flowering orange pekoe, the orange pekoe, and the pekoe. For black tea, those leaves are also crushed and oxidized.
A 1773 tax on tea shipped to America led to that famous party where angry colonists, dressed like Indians, broke open crates of imported tea leaves, and tossed them into Boston Harbor. This may explain why Starbucks and Peets gained popularity in the United States instead of teahouses.