From pictures in books, TV, and online, we are used to pictures of wide and beautifully styled tea gardens, with tea growing in bushes, usually no more than half a meter high, often less, with thin and tender trunks and branches, but in fact this is only half the story.
The species tea, Camellia Sinensis, is divided into 3 main branches, 2 of which are most relevant for today’s tea industry: Camellia Sinensis sinensis and Camellia Sinensis assamica. The third subspecies, Camellia Sinensis java, is rarely used in its pure form to produce tea, but has been used for crossbreeding, in order to achieve some desirable characteristics of the java species in the resulting crossbreed.
Now, what we see, when we see the above-mentioned tea gardens, is the Camellia Sinensis sinensis subspecies. The assamica subspecies, however, though originating from India’s Assam region, has long become native to many other south east Asian countries, including China, Burma, Lao, Vietnam and Thailand, too, and being left alone in the wild it will grow to tea trees (not to be confused with Melaleuca alternifolia, the source of the so-called tea tree oil) of a height of up to 10 m.
In many native forests, such as in Yunnan for example, people are still today climbing these trees to collect the leaves from what the world has come to call “wild tea”. However, tea trees are also cultivated in tea gardens today, where they are kept cut to a certain height on an annual basis, in order to promote the development of new branches and shoots as well as to keep the leaves accessible for harvesting. Despite the regular cutting back, the assamica tea tree species seems to nevertheless develop a thick and strong tree-like trunk that will keep growing just like if it was a full size tree.
Though there still seems to be little awareness in the Western tea drinker scene in regard to teas harvested from wild tea trees, these recommend themselves with a set of striking arguments: coming from natural forests, this might be as free of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and artificial fertilizers as it gets, with no human being really tampering with it. Then, wild teas offer rare and special tastes that might not be preserved in the same tea species’ cultivated forms, and often they are being processed according to very ancient local procedures that are rooted in a particular region or even tribal culture.
So, if you don’t count any “tree tea” to your otherwise probably rich collection of teas, some teas harvested from wild tea trees might just be a refreshing approach that will not only get you some new and different teas to try, but also infuse your “tea life” with new stimuli, shades and insights.
See also: What Is Wild Tea?
See more of Thomas Kasper’s articles here.
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