Yann Chat stands near a bamboo fence with one hand holding a basket and the other picking fresh blue flower from green vines growing on nearby trees. She is picking butterfly pea flowers – also known as blue tea – before bringing them to dry in the sun as they are the key ingredient in butterfly tea, which is now a popular drink found in cafes and stalls across Cambodia.
Chat is just one of many beverage vendors who are choosing to grow their own butterfly pea to use as raw material for their butterfly tea – and it also comes in handy for decorating her business.
“I chose to grow the flower because it can be used to make drinks and it provides beauty, as I also grow it around the shop. It can be attractive to the guests who come here because of its beautiful flowers,” Chat, who owns Somros S’ang Phnom Coffee in Kandal province, told The Post.
With a relative who is a florist, Chat started out planting only clumps of butterfly peas until she planted about 20 clusters, all of them now growing beautifully around the cafe.
She said it is very easy to plant and to care for butterfly pea flowers as they grow very easily and quickly, instead of buying the dried flowers to make it.
“We started planting them when their height was only 12cm – and then when it grows to about 1m in height, it starts flowering continuously. If it is the rainy season, the flowers will always come out and I will continue to pick them every day,” she said.
At Somros S’ang Phnom Coffee, Chat uses home grown butterfly pea flowers to make butterfly tea, honey tea, butterfly milk tea, and lemon butterfly tea.
“They can be made into five or six kinds of drinks, and most of them are popular among the younger customers,” she said.
In addition to supplying her own cafe, the flowers – once picked and dried – are also sold to some of the other beverage vendors.
“Some of them ask for seeds and I also distribute them,” she said.
What has given her confidence about growing plants herself, she said, were the results she was getting with very fragrant butterfly pea flowers. Combine that with careful and hygienic drying and brewing and the results are tough to beat.
“In my place, I also grow pandan [Pandanus amaryllifolius] and jasmine. I always try to grow a lot of plants because we grow them naturally and we can grow anything by ourselves. We do not have to buy them from others and fear they were doused with chemicals.” said Chat, who also professes a love for nature and the environment.
Turning over a new leaf
The popularity of butterfly tea and the ease of growing the main ingredient have led many coffee shop owners to raise these plants on their own and those who used to cultivate large-scale butterfly pea flower gardens have mostly switched their plantations to other crops.
Mem Chansy, the owner of Nika Coffee and Butterfly Tea Shop, abandoned her butterfly pea plantation and kept just a small number of plants to support her own cafe business.
“I used to grow them on half-a-hectare of land at home, but now I stopped growing it because it is difficult . . . I could harvest 1kg per day, which sells for only 40,000 riel [$10] and we need two or three people to pick the flowers daily, so it is difficult,” he told The Post.
A few years ago, after seeing growing demand for butterfly tea spike and noticing large import shipments of the dried flowers from neighbouring countries crossing into the Kingdom, Chansy began using half-a-hectare of land in Koh Thom district of Kandal province as a butterfly pea flower plantation to contribute his own local flowers into what was available to cafe owners.
Although the plants grow easily and are not difficult to maintain – they aren’t picky about soil type or weather and yield within three or four months of planting – labour problems when harvesting them and declining market prices have forced Chansy to turn the butterfly pea flower garden into a sponge gourd plantation.
“At first, we sold them at 60,000 riel for 1kg of the flowers, but after a while the butterfly pea became overplanted and our buyer from Thailand gave lower prices so we stopped the business. There were sometimes many flowers leftover whereas before we could sell them out.
“If we plant a lot of flowers then we need to use a lot of labour to pick them and some flowers imported from Thailand are actually cheaper. Most Cambodians spend only 40,000 riel for 1kg of imported flowers from Thailand. Our butterfly peas are more expensive, but we have to spend on workers to pick them in hot weather. My father decided to try something else, because it is not very profitable,” Chansy said.
However, as a shop owner, Chansy makes sure he still has some petals on hand to make drinks for his customers who order buttermilk tea, butterfly tea, coconut tea, fragrant tea, butterfly mango tea, butterfly lattes and jelly desserts.
“The flowers are widely planted. In my village, no one plants it. Now at the coffee shop, we only plant butterfly peas, so we can pick their flowers in the morning and evening and it is easy to grow,” he said.
He said the butterfly pea flower – which is known to be rich in antioxidants – has a lot of benefits for health and beauty, such as reducing signs of aging, anti-inflammatory properties and strengthening the immune system.
Citing a recent research published on healthline.com – a website run by US-based health information provider Healthline Media Inc – he said extracts from butterfly pea flowers have been found to help keep skin and hair healthy, maintain healthy body weight and reduce blood sugar levels.
“If we grow it and we process it ourselves, it might be a good business if we then processed it as powder and made soap or shampoo,” said the cafe owner.
Aside from the trend of planting butterfly pea flowers at coffee shops, the plants are also still popularly grown at home as its attractive flowers are handy ingredients for making drinks and desserts for families who like to make their own refreshments from scratch, regardless of market demand being in decline.
Heng Chan, a resident of Kampong Cham province, used to think that if the butterfly pea flowers were expensive, she would increase the number of them she has planted in order to sell them.
“At first I thought that if I could sell them at a high price, I would plant them around the house. I thought that if we planted 50 clumps of the butterfly peas on trellises, like planting vegetables, it should be easier to pick its flowers. We could stand on a ladder and pick them,” the 65-year-old told The Post.
“About five years ago, 1kg was $30 – but since the pandemic, the price has been going steadily down,” she said.
She said that butterfly pea flowers are cheap because many people can grow this plant and large flower plantations also face difficulties harvesting them in a cost effective way.
“It is going to be cheap when everyone grows it. We can grow the plant easily but it’s difficult to pick the flowers. We must stand and pick each flower. When we plant it, it is not difficult to grow, but it will take a lot of time to pick,” Chan said.
Today, she grows about 10 clumps of butterfly peas around her house. In order to make 1kg of dried tea, which she says she can sell for 60,000 riel, she has to pick two full baskets of flowers and with her number of plants that takes her about a month.
Although the butterfly pea flowers cannot be considered a lucrative business for her, Chan still keeps planting them for the dual-purpose of decorating her home and as an ingredient in drinks and desserts for her family.