“Camellia sinensis originated in South East Asia, specifically around the intersection of latitude 29°N and longitude 98°E, the point of confluence of the lands of North East India, North Burma, South West China and Tibet. The plant was introduced to more than 52 countries, from this ‘centre of origin’.” (Mary Lou Heiss; Robert J. Heiss. The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide).
The tea plant was first brought to Japan in AD 805 by two Buddhist monks, Saicho and Kukai, who, after studying abroad in China returned with some young tea trees. In the early 1800s a Fujian tea merchant took some seeds to Taiwan to see how well the plants would grow there. As the British demand for tea grew it motivated British tea traders to find other avenues to bring tea into the country. A Scottish explorer discovered the Assamese tea plant in 1823; whilst originally believed to be inferior, they realised that the Chinese tea variety could not withstand the hot conditions in Assam. By 1838 the Assamese tea plantation had gone ahead and the first contingent of 12 chests of Assam tea had reached London. Darjeeling was transferred to the East India Company in 1835, and the Chinese tea variant was deemed suitable for the region in 1841. Commercial plantations started in the 1850s and 113 plantations were set up in Darjeeling by 1874, covering 18,888 acres and accounting for a production of 3.9 million pounds.
These are just a few instances of how the tea plant has spread across the globe and it is now cultivated in both tropical and subtropical regions around the world.
The Camellia sinensis plant is actually an evergreen shrub that is usually trimmed to below 2 metres to allow the leaves to be cultivated easily. Each leaf is approximately 4 – 15 cm long and 2 – 5 cm wide. The older the leaf, the deeper the green, with young leaves being a light, bright green with short white hairs on the underside. Fresh leaves contain roughly 4% caffeine, as well as related compounds such as throbromine. Usually, the bud and the first two or three leaves that are preferably young are harvested for processing, varying the tea qualities, as the different ages have unique chemical compositions. The flowers are yellow-white, with 7 to 8 petals and are 2.5 – 4 cm in diameter.
Tea oil can also be yielded by pressing the seeds of Camellia sinensis and Camellia oleifere; this is a sweetish seasoning and cooking oil. Tea tree oil is an essential oil and is completely different, originating from the leaves of a different plant.
The taste variation of different tea comes from the location, the soil, the altitude, the weather pattern, and the way the leaves are treated after plucking. All this changes the final flavour of the tea. Another more overlooked factor that determines the taste is from which cultivar the tea is picked.
A cultivar is a race or variety of a plant that has been created or selected intentionally and maintained through cultivation. Essentially, cultivars are plants that have been selected by humans to cultivate. Botanists will take plants with specific qualities that they like and breed them in order to find an offspring with characteristics that are useful but different. They then take several cuttings over several generations of breeding, so that no unsavoury characteristics manifest, before they propagate the plant asexually so that each clone maintains the required features. On the occasion that a particular group of plants can maintain the desired characteristics without cloning, then a sexually propagated cultivar can exist. However, due to tea plants having the tendency to produce a wide variety of different plants when seeds are used, the latter is considerably less common than the former.
In its wild state, tea grows best in regions that enjoy a warm, humid climate with rainfall measuring at least 100 centimetres a year. Ideally, it grows better in deep, light, acidic and well-drained soil. Given these conditions, tea will grow in areas from sea level up to altitudes as high as 2,100 metres above sea level.
The tea grows on estates or small holdings. A smallholding is privately owned and can range from 0.5 hectares to several hectares. In various tea-producing countries, where the tea grows in smallholdings, co-operatives are formed to build a tea processing factory central to a group of smallholders; the owners of the smallholdings sell their plucked leaf to the factory for processing. On the other hand, an estate is a self-contained unit, often hundreds of hectares in size, housing its own factory, tea growing area, schools, hospital, staff houses and gardens, places of worship, reservoirs and guest houses.
The tea grows as a bush approximately one metre high, for ease of plucking. Each bush is grown from cuttings or clones, which are carefully nurtured in nursery beds until ready for planting out. The young bushes are planted 1.5 metres apart in rows with a gap of 1 metre between each row. In the higher altitudes, these rows follow the contours of the hills or mountainsides to avoid soil erosion. On some of the higher altitude estates, terraces are built, again to avoid soil erosion. The bush itself is trained into a fan shape with a flat top, called a plucking plateau, about 1×1.5 metres in area, which takes between three to five years to reach maturity. This is dependent on the altitude at which the tea is grown.
Before the first plucking, the bushes are severely pruned by a method known as ‘lung’ pruning. The bushes are plucked, mostly by hand, every 7-14 days. Altitude and climate conditions of the growing area are the two deciding factors in this regrowth period. A tea bush grown at sea level, once plucked will replace itself more quickly than a tea bush grown at a higher altitude, where the air is often cooler. Only the top two leaves and a bud are plucked from the sprigs on the plucking plateau.