“Tea is a Tree?”

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In every workshop I teach or tasting I host this question in one form or another always gets asked: “Are all the different kinds of tea made from one plant?!” My first answer is usually “Yes, isn’t that amazing that one plant is so versatile?” And then I follow up with a seemingly contradictory answer “Actually there are two main distinct subspecies that have evolved to become distinctly unique.” You might think of them as two twin sisters who are from the same womb but who over time and from their different life experiences have become very different kinds of people. One of them, Camellia sinensis sinensis, grew up in the high rugged elevations of the the China side of the Himalayan Mountains. While her sister Camellia sinensis assamica grew up on the India side, in a hotter, humid and lower elevation homeland. These twins are where all the tea cultivars that we know descend.

Along with thousands of cultivars (plants that have been manipulated by people to portray different characteristics), there are also thousands of perspectives on where tea truly comes from and what nation has their claim on this auspicious plant. The main thing to keep in mind as you read through various resources (mine included) is that no matter your point of perspective on the map, plants travel just like people do. This tea plant in particular has an incredible ability to adapt, mutate, and adjust to cultures and customs all over the world. Tea both creates culture and is created by cultures.

Green tea, white tea, black tea, pu’er tea, and oolong are all made from leaves from Camellia sinensis, the Tree. Yes, tea is a tree and can grow up to 45 feet tall. This might be confusing to you if you have seen pictures of tea bushes. But those tea bushes are only kept a bay from growing taller because people prune them that way. If left to their natural state they’d grow tall and gangly like any other tree. There are many groves in China and India where ancient tea trees have been left to grow to their own preferences.

Botanists and historians believe that Tea has it’s origins in the foothill lands surrounding the Himalayan mountains. Assam, Northern Burma and Thailand, Indochina and Southwest China are these birthplaces of the tea tree. But now a-days the tea plant has spread all over the world to the Caucasus, the Sierra’s and Appalachian mountains, the Aberdere Mountain Range in Kenya, the Japanese Alps, and Ali Shan Range in Taiwan, are just to name a few.

Those two sisters I told you about, you know, Camellia sinensis sinenses and Camellia sinensis assamica are part of a broader genus (kind of like an immediate family) called the Camellias. There are hundreds of species of Camellias (a genus or part of the broader family Theaceae, basically a whole family named after one of the hundreds of plants within called “Tea”). “Camellias are known as cháhuā (茶花, ‘tea flower’) in Chinese, tsubaki (椿) in Japanese, dongbaek-kkot (동백꽃) in Korean, and as hoa trà or hoa chè in Vietnamese.” As far as I know, Tea is the only one of these plants that has the component we love and admire, caffeine.

There are a few teas in our shop that illustrate these differences in tea subspecies and also illustrate the movement of tea plants throughout the world. Our classic Yunnan Mao Feng (Mao feng = downy hairs) is made from a big leaf varietal of tea. While it grows in the political domain of what is now known as Yunnan China, it is most likely made from an assamica varietal known for having big broad leaves. This tea is characterized by it’s downy hairs which come out into the water when you brew it and give a beautiful sweetness and a little density to the water. It is a green tea traditionally harvested in the Springtime. As chance has it, we have some fresh 2020 Yunnan Mao feng in the shop. Enjoy this slightly floral and bright tea!

Now let us travel to the Jing Shan region of China where we source our White Buddha Mao Feng. This is also a Mao Feng but is made from a smaller leaf varietal of tea plant called Anji, probably cultivated from the Sinensis sinensis sister. It’s believed that Anji (which is a white tea specific), is from an ancient varietal of tea plant rediscovered only 40 years ago. This tea is known for its bright green color, delicate floral nature, and a vivid green brew.

Okay so here’s your challenge should you accept: What is the closest place to your home-base where tea is currently growing? And, how did tea arrive there in the first place? Write about it here in our comments section below, or join us on facebook.

1 thought on ““Tea is a Tree?”

  1. Thank you so much this is beautiful and informative! Sending my love to Stone Leaf from Virginia!

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