The Portuguese Tea Connection

Did you know that the tea plant is actually a camellia?  it is camellia sinensis, the Chinese camellia.


Camellias were much on my mind on my recent scouting trip to Porto, Portugal. The ornamental camellia, camellia Japonica, is ubiquitous in the Porto area.    It is used for hedges and topiaries and seems to thrive clipped or unclipped.  In February, when I visited, the blooms were stunning, especially set off against the plant´s shiny deep green foliage.

Camellias in Portugal?

It was so delightful to see these exuberant blooms, especially coming from the dreary Northern winter that I started wondering how camellias had arrived in Porto.  In my northern mind, camellias are exotic blooms and need glasshouses to thrive. So how was it that they actually got to Porto?


Turns out camellias arrived in Porto from England in 1810 and they were planted outside – a departure from the growing conditions of England, where the oldest camellia on record dates to 1739 in Lord Petre at Thorndon Hall, Essex.  Indeed camellias in Northern Europe were reserved for the wealthy and ruling classes as these glasshouses required much care and the correspondent means.



In Porto and the surrounding area camellias are grown out of doors.  The oldest known specimens are in Portugal are to be found in the Porto area  For instance, in Guimaraes, there is a small and fine garden containing tree camellias about 200 years old.



The Ducal Palace in Guimaraes, Portugal
The Ducal Palace in Guimaraes, Portugal

Guimaraes is also known for the Ducal Palace, the Paco dos Duques de Braganza, the cradle of the Portuguese royal dynasty. 


There are no camellias in the Ducal Palace (but can you spy one on this photograph of the entrance to the palace?).


In fact, it is rather dark and gloomy, as one would expect of a medieval fort dating to the 15th century and restored to look as it would have looked back then.


In the very last bedchamber the portrait of a lady caught my eye.   

A Portuguese Princess

Catherine of Braganza, Portrait by Peter Lely, c. 1663–65 from Wikipedia
Catherine of Braganza, Portrait by Peter Lely, c. 1663–65 from Wikipedia

No it is not the Dame aux Camelias, but this princess does have a connection to camellias, the camellia sinensis, the tea plant.  


The portrait represents Catherine of Braganza.  According to the caption, she is responsible for having brought the custom of tea drinking to the court of England in the 17th century. 



I was intrigued:  this quintessentially English habit of drinking tea is not indigenous, not from Asia, but from Portugal?  So I did some reading and here is what I learned.


Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705) was the daughter of King John IV of Portugal (1604-1656), the first King from the House of Braganza.  King John IV would go down in history as the liberator king, the king who reclaimed Portuguese independence from Spain who had been ruling Portugal for the previous 60 years.


Portugal was then at the head of a widespread empire, with possessions stretching all across the globe. 

Charles II by John Michael Wright, the National Portrait Gallery, London, 1667-68
Charles II by John Michael Wright, the National Portrait Gallery, London, 1667-68


To break free from Spain, Portugal needed a powerful ally to defend the Portuguese’s overseas territories.  So King John IV sought to reinforce his ties with England, the greatest naval power at the time.   What better way than by arranging a dynastic marriage? 


And that is how, in 1661, at the age of 23, Catherine became the  wife Charles II (1630-1685),  King of England.


From Charles´s perspective, this was a marriage of convenience:  he needed Catherine´s substantial dowry to replenish his war chest and pay off his debt. 


Catherine´s dowry included not only several land possession such as the seven islands of Bombay but yes, you guessed it, a chest full of tea, that new and precious new drink the Portuguese court was so fond of.

What is a girl to do?

Photo by LIFEISGOOD from
Photo by LIFEISGOOD from

In Catherine´s home country of Portugal, tea was very popular and fashionable in aristocratic circles and at the royal court where Catherine grew up. 



Tea had been imported to Portugal by Portuguese traders from the East.  Its high price and exoticism helped it to become very fashionable.  Although it was popular with the Dutch, the English had not yet learned to love it too.


It is said that upon arriving in England, to settle her stomach after the stormy crossing to Portsmouth, Catherine asked for a cup of tea.  When the baffled English, who did not yet know tea (can you imagine?!)  handed her a cup of ale instead, she felt even more unwell and had to retire.   


So how did Catherine convince the English that tea was indeed a desirable drink? 


Catherine had a hard time when she first arrived at the English court.  She had led a rather secluded life and she found the English rowdy and too fun-loving compared to her life back home. 


It didn´t help that her husband Charles kept a much-flaunted series of mistresses, with whom he had several children, while she, Catherine, the legitimate wife, was unable to bear him an heir, having repeated miscarriages.



 Over time, however, her steadfast bearing earned her the respect of her spouse and his court.Catherine became something of a trend setter,  She preferred the cuisine of her native Portugal – including tea. And soon her taste for tea had caused a fad at the royal court, which  then spread to aristocratic circles and the wealthier classes

Catherine´s tea legacy

the Tea Plantations on Sao Miguel in the Azores. Photo credit .  By Pastorius - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
the Tea Plantations on Sao Miguel in the Azores. Photo credit . By Pastorius - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Catherine´s dowry also enabled Charles II to lay the foundations for the growth of the British tea trade.  He leased the seven islands of Bombay which Catherine had brought in her dowry to the East India Company.  These eventually became the Company`s Far East trading headquarters, very important to the tea trade.


To feed their new tea habit, the English started to plant tea on a large scale in British India.  And what about Portugal? 


To this day, in my opinion, the Portuguese are better at tea than coffee.  Curiously, tea is produced in Portugal too.  Since 1883, there are tea plantations in the Azores Archipelago in the North Atlantic.  This is in fact, the oldest tea plantation in Europe.



Travelling is about learning.  About uncovering unlikely connections one hadn´t  suspected could even exist. 


Now, when I think of Porto, I will always think of camellias in bloom,  Camellia Japonica


And when I drink a cup of tea, I will remember that I am actually drinking the leaves of Camellia Sinensis and that I owe the fact that this drink is so easily available, to a Portuguese princess who prevailed against adversity and exported to England a fashion which became a habit  anchored in English identity.

I wonder if Catherine knew the camellia blooms?  That is another story.

Sources:; and wikipedia

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