If you’ve never heard of butterfly pea flower tea, you’re not alone. But thanks to special properties that give it the remarkable ability to change colors, this native of Southeast Asia is fast becoming more popular in the West. But what exactly is butterfly pea flower tea, and what gives it these amazing color-changing abilities? Read on to find out.
The Secret of Butterfly Pea Flower Tea
Butterfly pea flower tea, or blue tea, is a caffeine-free herbal tea that’s made with the flowers of the butterfly pea plant, which is known by many names, including blue pea and the even more colorful Asian pigeonwings. But if its Latin name, Clitoria ternatea, seems somewhat familiar, that’s because clitoria comes from the word clitoris—a nod to the flowers’ reputed resemblance to female genitalia.
The blue hue of butterfly pea flowers (though some varieties do have white flowers as well) is what gives butterfly pea flower tea its rich blue color, reminiscent of sapphires.
In its native land, the deep blue flowers of the Clitoria ternatea plant are used as a natural dye and have been enjoyed for centuries as food, medicine, and, of course, tea.
In Thailand and Vietnam, butterfly pea flowers are used to create nam dok anchan—an herbal tea with honey and lemon that’s commonly served after dinner as a calming nightcap similar to chamomile tea or as a welcome to guests of hotels and spas.
In Thailand and Malaysia, blue pea flowers are used as a natural food coloring for rice dishes. And the Burmese enjoy butterfly pea flowers dipped in batter and fried.
All over Southeast Asia, butterfly pea flower tea is traditionally combined with lemongrass and enjoyed both hot and cold. The blue tea is also often served with mint, passion fruit, cinnamon, or ginger.
But the truly remarkable thing about butterfly pea flower tea is, of course, its ability to change colors—a feat that’s accomplished by changing the pH level of the liquid.
If you know anything about hydrangeas, you know that the color of the showy blooms can be changed by altering the pH level of the soil. Butterfly pea flowers appear to work in a similar manner, but instead of manipulating soil additives, changing the color of butterfly pea flower tea is as simple as mixing up the ingredients.
So if you add something acidic, like lemon juice or lime juice, the pH of the liquid will drop and the color will change from cobalt blue to purple. But add some hibiscus flowers, and the pH level goes up and the drink changes color to fuchsia or bright red.
Butterfly pea flower tea first became known in the United States in 2015, when Mission Chinese Food in New York City began using the flowers in a tropical cocktail as a natural alternative to artificially colored curaçao. The drink, which became known as the mood ring cocktail, was such a hit that restaurants and bars across the country began experimenting with the Southeast Asian flowers.
You might think all these electric colors would result in a tea that tastes like some artificially flavored, sugary concoction pulled out of the soda aisle, but it turns out that butterfly pea tea actually has an earthy flavor that’s more reminiscent of green tea.
Health Benefits of Clitoria Ternatea
You may think that anything that can perform a color change as cool as the Clitoria ternatea plant couldn’t possibly be super healthy too. But this fascinating plant has been revered for centuries by practitioners of both Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, who make use of the entire plant for treating everything from mood disorders to infections and diabetes.
However, more and more scientific studies are also beginning to document the potential medical—and even agricultural—benefits of the butterfly pea plant.
Butterfly pea flowers get their characteristic blue color from anthocyanins—plant chemicals that possess potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, anti-cancer, and hepatoprotective properties. The plants are also rich in peptides called cyclotides, which act as powerful insecticides and which have been found in studies to inhibit tumor growth, cause cancer cell death, and even inhibit replication of HIV.
What’s more, studies have found that Clitoria ternatea may be a useful ally in the fight against pathogenic bacteria and chronic diseases like diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.
A study in the journal Ayu found that an extract of Clitoria ternatea was effective in reducing both elevated blood sugar and oxidative stress in diabetic rats. And in a small study published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, researchers found that healthy men who drank an extract of Clitoria ternatea in water that also contained sucrose experienced reduced blood sugar spikes as well as increased plasma concentrations of antioxidants.
Bacterial and Fungal Infections
Clitoria ternatea has been found in multiple studies to possess significant antibacterial and antifungal properties.
A study in the International Journal of Applied Biology and Pharmaceutical Technology found that extracts of Clitoria ternatea were effective against a number of strains of pathogenic bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus, Klebsiella pneumoniae, and Salmonella typhi, and some of the extracts were even more effective than traditional antibiotics.
In addition, a study in the journal Applied Biochemistry and Biotechnology found that extracts of the seeds of Clitoria ternatea were broadly effective against a range of pathogenic fungi, including Cryptococcus, Aspergillus, and Candida.
A rodent study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology found that a root extract of Clitoria ternatea had a significant impact on the memories of rats with bilateral occlusion of the carotid arteries, leading researchers to conclude that the extract could be an effective treatment for patients with vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
What’s more, a study in the journal Natural Products and Bioprospecting found that an extract of Clitoria ternatea was effective against the enzyme monoamine oxidase, which has implications for the treatment of depression and anxiety as well as neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Whether you prefer hot tea or iced tea, tropical cocktails, or even our color-changing smoothie, butterfly pea flower tea promises to boost your health while it delights your senses. So keep an eye out for this color-changing blue tea and be prepared to impress your family and friends with this truly remarkable wonder of nature.