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Party-lecture suits participants to the tea


EVEN AFTER attending Sunday's tea party at Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church, the argument continues: Which do you prefer? Earl Grey or English breakfast?

Ladies present at the afternoon affair were there to learn once and for all just how to make the perfect cup of English tea and get some advice on additions to their flower gardens.

Sponsored by the Presbyterian Women at Woods, the party - a first at the church - attracted more than 40 members and guests, who sipped tea and munched tiny sandwiches and cakes while tea maven Kate Whitman, assisted by her two young daughters, unraveled the complexities of correct tea preparation.

Polly Wilson set the mood with arrangements of flowers, antique teapots and linens atop each party table.

Forced inside by pouring rain - and therefore without benefit of the day's planned garden tour - Jane Iglehart, chief gardener of the church flower beds, explained how she selects regional, historical and biblical flora.

But tea proved the hot topic for the day because few in the audience seemed aware of the depth of the subject matter. By the time the party was over, many were on their way home to toss Mr. Coffee and resurrect Aunt Bess' porcelain teapot to make tea a more important part of their lives.

The source of their inspiration was Whitman, a former chemical engineer, mother of two and, lately, expert on the subject of English tea, who oversaw the preparation of three teas for tasting: an Earl Grey, a traditional English breakfast and a Christmas tea.

The Severna Park resident's sojourn into the intricacies of the 5,000-year-old beverage began when she helped her mother, Deidra Hayes of Philadelphia, market her handmade tea cozies. While arranging sales locations, Whitman discovered the world of tea.

People's enchantment with the evergreen plant that produces tea, she says, can be traced to when the favorite beverage was a tiny cup of boiling water. (Cups were made of clay and would dissolve if filled too long with hot water.)

Legend has it that Chinese Emperor Shen Nung was relaxing in his garden with a cup of water when a leaf drifted into it. The result was a "royal drink," water infused with flavor. Today, all tea comes from that same flowering evergreen shrub, Camellia sinensis.

The popular term, "herbal tea," is a misnomer, says Whitman, because it is not made of tea, but of herbs.

Teas mostly are named for the region where they grow, such as Ceylon (China) and Darjeeling (India). However, Earl Grey is named for the man who first blended the tea that is traditionally flavored with the oil of the bergamot orange. A tea's growing region, the altitude and soil, and time of harvest affect its flavor.

The United States is credited with two tea innovations:

At the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, a vendor was trying to sell hot tea in hot weather. Nobody was buying. In desperation, he poured the tea over ice, and the rest is history.

Four years later, a New York tea importer, Thomas Sullivan, began marketing samples of his tea in little bags made of silk. He later switched to paper for the bags.

Whitman, who refers readers to her favorite source of information, "The Book of Coffee and Tea" by Joel, David and Karl Schapira, sells tea and accessories along with her mother's cozies.

"Despite the variety of tea available to my husband, Ronn," says Whitman, laughing, "he makes his iced tea from Lipton's decaffeinated."

A retired teacher, Jane Iglehart spent the past 19 years of her career at Benfield Elementary School. She and her gardening team, Lee Kaus and Judy Lupher, tend their whimsically named beds: surprise garden, secret garden, electric door gardens and bridal steps garden (named for a curving staircase used for wedding photos).

"Gardening wasn't always my interest," says Iglehart, "but when I retired from teaching, I decided to volunteer and I wanted to be outdoors." She and her husband, Charles, "migrate" to Florida in December and return in April in time to work in the gardens.

"We try to make them interesting," says Iglehart. "When they built Sunrise [an assisted-living facility near the church], I went into those woods and found a jack-in-the-pulpit. We planted it at the preacher's office door." Found in woodland settings, the tall blossom is considered the "preacher," and the bract arching up and over the flower is his "pulpit."

The wildflower is at home in the church courtyard, where it is shaded and almost always damp. Iglehart says she and her team "got out wetlands books to see what would grow there." As a result, they've planted ferns, moss, Lenten roses and "just jack."

"When I go shopping or looking," she adds, "I look for plants that have a biblical reference or have a story." The children's gardens include the surprise garden with its flowerpot angel, the secret garden, and the smelling garden - with rosemary, chive, lemon balm and mint, it is where youngsters in the church's child development center are encouraged to "pluck and smell" plants.

Before the tea, Presbyterian Women of Woods co-moderators Linda Norris and Cindi White presented a Presbyterian Women honorary life membership to Joyce Fava.

The wife of retired Air Force Col. James Fava, she was recognized for her years of service to Woods as a church leader, teacher and officer in the Presbyterian Women at Woods organization.

Tea information: Whitman, 410-975-9265 or Dashbytea@ aol.com.

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