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Is “Wild” Tea Superior to Cultivated Tea?

In the tea world fads come and go. And tea trends are everywhere. Green tea diet pills. Pu-erh miracle elixirs (as shown in this article on our blog). Teas of all kinds being called “artisan” (a key buzzword recently). Now it seems to be “wild” tea. What is it and is it superior to cultivated tea? Time to take a closer look.

Supposed “wild” tea trees. (From Yahoo! Images)
Supposed “wild” tea trees. (From Yahoo! Images)

What Is “Wild” Tea?

I broached this topic awhile back in this article on our blog, but am summarizing in this article and adding some further clarification, considering some of the confusing and downright nonsensical definitions out there. I also want to exclude a plant known as “scorpion bush” or “wild tea” from this discussion. Ditto for those other plants available in the wild and being mislabeled as “tea” (true tea is made from leaves of the tea plant family Camellia sinensis).

Wild means just that – wild. As in uncultivated. The plant grows as it can according to the climate conditions. What wild is not: “single estate” (this term can be used equally for commercially grown tea, unlike a well-known “wild” tea site claims). The wild plants are just there. No estate involved. It is contradictory to call a location an estate if the teas are not being cultivated. For those who are real sticklers, I should add that technically someone climbing into the tea plant (which is more like a tree when it is let grow uncultivated) and plucking off the new leaves is a way of cultivating. You could say, therefore, that there is really no such thing as “wild” tea. There is just untended and tended tea. The untended tea plant is not watered, de-weeded (yes, getting weeds away from the tea plants is a good thing – they soak up moisture and attract insects, molds, fungus, and other diseases), and de-bugged (as in insects, not spy devices). The tended tea plant has these things done (the weeding and de-bugging can be done normally or “organically” as in without the aid of man-made products). So, which is better?

“Wild” Tea vs. Cultivated Tea

The difference here can be like strawberries foraged in the wild versus those grown commercially and available in the produce section of your local grocery market. Your personal taste comes to play, too. I have tasted both types of strawberries (back when I could eat them without swelling up like a dirigible). The truly wild ones are tiny, very deep red, and very sweet – wonderful! The commercially grown ones are much larger and paler and not nearly as sweet – in fact, they tend to be a bit tart if picked too soon. They were grown for their size in response to market demand.

As for teas, larger leaves or smaller leaves or more natural sugars or other qualities have been bred into the various cultivars of Camellia sinensis from which our store teas are made. These are partly in response to the market (you, the consumer) demands and partly by the grower wanting to offer something different so you’ll buy his tea or just as his/her own idea of what might be good. The “wild” (untended) tea will have whatever flavor characteristics are in the plant (bush or tree) they are from. Often, the leaves are kept separate per plant type. Dancongs are a good example where they are a particular type of the Shui Xian tea plant. They are kept separate per plant type and thus retain their flavor and aroma profiles (based mostly on floral aromas occurring naturally in the leaves and/or brought out during processing). These aren’t really “wild” since the plants are carefully tended, but they are “wild” by one vendor’s definition since they are kept sorted by plant. Confused yet? Don’t be. Just be aware that “wild” (like “artisan”) is another of those marketing buzzwords.

Which Is Superior?

So, back to our basic question of which is best. My preference is for those teas that are single estate (true ones, not just those being claimed to be such) and even single flush so I can get the different flavor experiences. But the cultivated teas meet a huge world demand that would otherwise be left wanting. Plus, for many of us, hubby and me included), that tea blended from leaves from various gardens creates a more balanced flavor/aroma experience and gives some predictability. You like what you like. There is, therefore, no absolute superiority. You will need to determine which you like best.

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

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One response to “Is “Wild” Tea Superior to Cultivated Tea?”

  1. Many people equate and define, quite understandably, ‘wild’ tea to be those that grow to its full natural size, irrespective of location, care, plucking methods or management. Of course, as pointed out by the article, this is incorrect. Foraging is the only acceptable harvest method for wild plants.

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