Yes, the title of this blog sounds like Spam. The first sentence in a blog is supposed to entice the reader to read on, so I’m risking all by saying this remarkable plant looks so unremarkable, I have never given it a second thought. It makes such an inoffensive green tea, few would drink it without good reason. Thankfully, this neglected native is more than just good for what ails you, so read on, grow it and drink a cup of good health!
Ehretia microphylla is an evergreen shrub in the Boraginaceae family. Borage and forget-me-nots are its relatives. It has tiny flowers, shiny little leaves and edible berries the size of a matchstick head. It is a popular subject for bonsai because it is so easily trained. I have seen many examples in the bonsai exhibitions at the Singapore Garden Festival. In the wet tropics, it replaces English box as a neat, decorative hedge. It is easy care and very popular clipped into many shapes.
This year, at the Queensland Garden Expo, I saw my first Australian-grown specimen and I learned some important things about it.
In tropical Asia it has a long tradition of everyday use as a refreshing, caffeine-free, green tea known as Fukein tea. Prior to the introduction of coffee into China, it was widely grown and consumed as green tea. Fukein is an Anglicisation of the Chinese province of Fujian, which formerly included Taiwan, now the Republic of China, but in the English speaking world the trade name Fukein tea persists.
To prepare Fukein tea, finely chopped shoots (stems and leaves), or dried leaves, are simmered in boiling water for fifteen minutes before straining and drinking. It tastes innocuous, but with the addition of hibiscus flowers, cinnamon leaves, or honey it could be flavoursome. I’ve tried lime juice, but it doesn’t add to the flavour.
Its importance as tea has slipped from consciousness, however, in the Philippines and Vietnam, Fukein tea is being actively promoted in government programmes as a medicinal tea because it is antioxidant rich and has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and antihistamine qualities.
In the Philippines, Fukein tea is a traditional medicinal drink used to alleviate stomach ache, colic, diarrhoea, dysentery, gastroenteritis, coughs and fevers. It is also used as a disinfectant wash for eczema and, since it has a good fluoride content, as a mouth gargle against tooth decay.
In Vietnam this tea is called cùm rụm lá nhỏ, where it is a traditional drink still in regular use. It is commonly taken after meals to aid digestion. According to a certain Vietnamese market gardener (who’s mother grows it), Fukein tea is important because it helps alleviate swelling and itchiness caused by allergic reactions. It is also taken to assist female fertility. Apparently I had the chance to taste and buy dried cùm rụm lá nhỏ tea in a traditional tea house Hue, when touring Vietnam with The Adventure Traveller in 2019.
The most surprising thing I learned about Fukein tea at the Queensland Garden Expo is this plant is an Australian native, occurring in tropical vine thickets from Cape York south to Cairns. Its natural range includes India, SE Asia, China, Taiwan, Japan, Malesia, the Solomon Islands and also Christmas Island.
So now I have an addition to my collection of green tea plants. It is frost sensitive, but it is otherwise easy care – certainly less demanding than true tea. I’ll have to cosset my specimen and see if I can propagate it this summer.
Thank you, Darryl and Stephanie Baptie and Arno King for sharing this healthful native with me.
Cheers to the Australian native famous for producing Chinese green tea!
Director, Seed Savers’ Network
16th August 2021