On the first sourcing trip I took for Cultivate, back in 2014, I traveled to the Huangshan Mountains to visit a green tea farm famous for their Huangshan Maofeng. The Chen family ran this farm, and they welcomed me to this majestic region very kindly. After our visit, when I parted with them, Mrs. Chen tucked a small package into my bag, telling me, “Huangshan is also famous for our chrysanthemum tea.” I didn’t think much of it at the time; I was so taken by everything else I had encountered, and these flowers were not exactly tea.
Despite having dismissed them, the chrysanthemums traveled back to Vancouver with me. Much later, on an evening that I was heading out to meet a friend, I came across the package from Mrs. Chen. Wanting something without caffeine, I hurriedly threw a few of the flowers into a thermos and added hot water to take with me. When I took my first sip I was surprised, surely in part because my expectations were so uninformed, but also because the tea I had made was so beautiful – unlike any herbal tea I had tried before! The tea tasted impossibly sweet and refreshing. I looked at the flowers that had opened in the water: they were very vivid – these frayed, semi-translucent orbs that slowly drifted towards and away from one another.
I’ve carried this chrysanthemum tea at Cultivate since then. Reflecting on my encounter with these flowers, they seem like a perfect example of how sourcing tea can be at the best of times: you unintentionally find a tea so special that it captivates you immediately, and by way of curiosity it brings you closer to both it, and your own presence.
Emperor’s Chrysanthemum are an ancient varietal of chrysanthemum flowers, indigenous to Huangshan Mountain. In the Song Dynasty they were tribute teas for the Emperor. Every November, as soon as the flowers were harvested and dried, they were sent by the fastest horses to the Emperor’s Palace to be enjoyed by the Emperor and his family. They are understood as a restorative tea for the end of winter and early spring.
This is my 9th year receiving these chrysanthemums from Huangshan. As the highest grade of the Emperor’s Chrysanthemum, they have gotten progressively harder to procure. This is for several reasons: the weather in the region has become increasingly unpredictable, there have been severe droughts, or too much rain; this indigenous varietal has a much lower yield than modern chrysanthemum varietals, and requires more field work as they are grown without the use of fertilizers or chemicals; the standards for such a high grade of flower are very high and any weather damage will render them unsuitable for tea. For all of these reasons, the availability of the highest grade of Emperor’s Chrysanthemum has dropped significantly, (at least 70% from when I first sourced them). Every year, as my appreciation for them deepens, these flowers very literally grow more precious.
This year’s harvest is exceptional. There is so much petal; underwater the blossoms expand into full, buoyant orbs. The contrast between their deep green flower head and the puff of petals is striking. The pale, semi-translucent petals impart an astringency and a diffused vibrant yellow to the liquor. It tastes very refreshing, with soft, grassy notes that move evenly through the body, dispelling heat. It feels a bit like the milk that comes from the stems of flowers – rich, essential, and a cool response to the sun’s energy.
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