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Cultivar versus Varietal in Tea Plants

Cultivar or varietal? It’s all tea! (Stock image)
Cultivar or varietal? It’s all tea! (Stock image)

The world of tea is full of all kinds of terms, many that are bandied about willy-nilly and not used correctly. Not long ago an attempt was made to clarify using “cultivar” versus “varietal” when talking about tea plants. Now, I’m all for going for such clarity, but I think the very short article didn’t go far enough and still left a big gap in readers’ knowledge. Time for a closer look.

What Is a Cultivar

This is pretty simple. There are many definitions online, and some go into great depth regarding every aspect of this term horticulturally speaking. Here’s a pretty simple and straightforward one:

cul·ti·var (kŭl′tə-vär′, -vâr′) n. A race or variety of a plant that has been created or selected intentionally and maintained through cultivation. (From Thefreedictionary.com)

More facts about cultivars:

  • The word “cultivar” [short for “cultivated variety”] was coined in 1923 by Liberty Hyde Bailey (1858–1954). He stated, “I now propose…cultivar, for a botanical variety, or for a race subordinate to species, that has originated under cultivation; it is not necessarily, however, referable to a recognized botanical species. It is essentially the equivalent of the botanical variety except in respect to its origin.”
  • Officially, a cultivar must be distinct, having characteristics that easily distinguish it from any other known cultivar, and under repeated propagation these characteristics must be retained.
  • The origin of “cultivar” is based on a need to distinguish between wild plants and those with characteristics due to cultivation.
  • Example of correct text presentation: Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans’ (the scientific Latin botanical name is in italics, and the cultivar name is in single quotes).

What Is a Variety

You probably noticed that the word “variety” is part of the term “cultivar.” Here is a good definition I found online:

…a “variety” (sometimes abbreviated “var.”) arises naturally in the plant kingdom, and plants grown from its seeds will typically come out true to type. … When a variety is named, it appears differently than a cultivar name does. Rather than being presented in single quotes, it is italicized and in lower case — just like the species name, which it follows. (From Landscaping on About.com)

For the tea plant, we have Camellia sinensis (the main plant), Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (China), Camellia sinensis var. assamica (Assam, India), Camellia sinensis var. parvifolia (Cambodia), and Camellia sinensis var. japonica (Japan). There may be others.

What Is a Varietal

Time for finding out what a “varietal” is. Here is a typical definition I found online:

adj. adjective – Of, indicating, or characterizing a variety, especially a biological variety. (From dictionary.search.yahoo.com)

Therefore, calling something the assamica varietal is correct usage. It’s simply short for saying Camellia sinensis var. assamica (where “var.” stands for “variety”). And, as that other author said, calling something the Tieguanyin varietal is improper, since it is a cultivar, but I have to disagree that saying “Tieguanyin is a varietal tea made from the ‘Tieguanyin’ cultivar” is a correct usage of the term “varietal.” And I’m not sure where the author got that definition of “varietal.” It certainly differs from the ones I found (dozens, all saying virtually the same thing).

See more of A.C. Cargill’s articles here.

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One response to “Cultivar versus Varietal in Tea Plants”

  1. Andrew Hoffman Avatar
    Andrew Hoffman

    Varietal is an adjective meaning related to a specific variety. So, say a varietal wine is correct if it is made primarily from one variety of grape, as opposed to blends which were sold by regional names in Europe. The term varietal began in the California wine industry in 1950’s to describe wine that were made primarily from one variety of grape. It has been adopted by other industries — such as wine and honey, etc. It refers to products made from from primarily one variety of a particular crop (i.e. tea, grape, etc.).

    So, referring to a tea plant as a varietal is incorrect. It would be like saying “This tea plant contains only one variety of tea.” Referring to a box of tea or tea bag in a store would be correct if the box contains only one variety of tea.

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