the teaplant: how „thea sinensis“ became „camellia sinensis“

klick hier für die deutsche version

what you can read in this posting in a nutshell: originally the botanical name of the tea plant was "thea sinensis". it was later reclassified to the genus "camellia", and accordingly renamed "camellia sinensis". the name camellia goes back to the czech jesuit "george joseph kamel".
tea may be drunk for thousands of years, in today's biology it came first by carl von linnè (1707 - 1778), the famous swedish naturalist. he inducted unified latin concepts in the biology, so that plants and animals could be unambiguously identified, to avoid confusion. the professional term for this is "nomenclature".
linnè designated in 1753 the teaplant as thea sinensis.


tea was described by the world-traveler engelbert kämpfer (1651 - 1716), a german who also worked as a botanist. he called the plant, which he had seen in japan, in his description "thee", in the way tea was written at that time in the german language. the nomenclature demanded latin names, and so the german thee became latin like to thea. the second word sinensis means "originating from china", from where the tea plant is native.
linnè gave many plants names in accordance to his new latin nomenclature, so to another one, that kämpfer had also seen in japan. linnè called it "camellia japonica" (japonica = of japanese origin), which is widely known as a very beautiful ornamental plant.


camellia japonica
kämpfer called camellia japonica in his description as usual in japan "tsubaki". but linne changed this name to honor the czech jesuit george joseph kamel (1661-1706). the surname kamel was latinized to camellia. linnè did that because kamel had made biological studies on the philippines, where he led the pharmacy of the monastery. he worked for the biological science, for what he received an award after his untimely death. he died at 45 years of a diarrheal disease.
So camellia japonica and thea sinensis coexist. however, turned out in the course of several years that the two are very closely related, and they had to be united under a common first name.
In this reunion of camellia and thea was a little bit tricked.
thea would normally have been eponymus, because it was described in the first volume of linnè`s species plantarum, camellia in the second, and the previously mentioned name has eminence (priority rule).
the publication of the two volumes was merged (there were in reality three months between), and for another, now applicable rule (first proposed name under which should united), rule-compliant camellia was selected.
therefore camellia sinensis, and not thea sinensis.
if camellia had been removed, kamel would have fallen into oblivion, despite his merits for biology. correct decision, i think, even if thea is perhaps the more beautiful name.
certainly kamel never saw a camellia japonica in his whole life.

biologists are hard-working people, and over 200 species of camellia are meanwhile summarized.

thanks to "teekanne" for the corrections in this translation!