Between the Leaves, October 2007

Eww! I just made a cup of Silver Needle, and after I finished, I noticed all these little hairs in the bottom of my cup! Gross! What can I do to keep the hair out of my tea?

Silver Needle
Silver Needle

Finding hair in anything destined to go in your stomach is, as you say, gross. In fact, I feel a little nauseated just thinking about it. However, my revulsion stems from knowing that hair, being a ‘dead’ structure of degrading protein that can easily fall out or be broken off, is a large contributor to that miscellaneous mess we call dirt. Therefore, a hair in my food means that the food was prepared under unsanitary conditions. This is absolutely not the case for your Silver Needle.

True hair is something that is only found on mammals.

Leaves are something found only on plants.

Ergo, the hairs in your cup cannot really be hair. They are, however, trichomes.

Unlike dead mammalian hair, trichomes are very much living, cellular extensions of a plant and provide a variety of functions. A few allow for carnivory—such as the ‘trigger hairs’ of a Venus Fly Trap or the sticky, glandular trichomes of Stylidiums—but most take on the less-glamorous role of insurance policy. If nothing else, trichomes increase the boundary between leaf and world to act as a buffer against UV-damage, water evaporation, herbivory and pathogen attack. Indeed, these are the very safeguards provided by tea’s trichomes, with special emphasis on pathogen attack.

Though post-harvest processing eventually removes trichomes from all but white and some green teas, they can be found on all tea leaves, and are especially dense over the apical shoot bud and its first adjacent leaf. The greater density provides these young tissues with a little extra protection, particularly against water. Though water is necessary for a plant’s survival, water resting upon leaves gives bacteria and fungi both time and opportunity to establish an infection. Of course, such an infection in tea would prevent growers from using affected leaves in their products—as many disappointed farmers can attest.

So, instead of reviling that little collection of hairs at the bottom of your cup, embrace them! They have been responsible for seeing those leaves safely all the way from the field to you. In addition, they are part of white tea’s unique experience and can help to give it a softer mouthfeel. If you absolutely cannot stomach the trichomes, paper tea filters will help minimize shedding. Still, I urge you to try brewing without them. Close your eyes if you have to, but give the hair a chance.