The origin of tea trees

Imagine the forest some thousand years ago. How many trees could have possibly survived till now, even the human exploitation?
Yet, I will tell you that there are still trees, which were yielding the harvest of tea leaves to dozens and maybe even a hundred of generations back. The place of origin of the chashu 茶树 / the tea plant or Camellia sinensis is in the Yunnan province of China. The same place where I decided to spend my one-year scholarship during my studies at university in 2007. Yunnan deeply stroke my heart. It is one of the most beautiful, adoring and most uneasy place to explore.
There are still over a hundred and over a thousand years old tea trees growing in this area. However, trees are not bound only to one exact region. Their population are exceeding far beyond any political border, and today, we can find them in Vietnam, in Laos as well as in Burma.  Throughout thousands of years have these trees evolved into different colonies with different features. Some have leaves covered by tiny hair, some don’t, some are very bitter, some are sweet. And all can be produced into the most delicate beverage – tea.
But let’s get back to China, as it is the cradle of tea and peak a bit into the history. As early as 3000 years ago, the wild tea collected from the virgin forest in southern Yunnan became a tribute to the Zhou Dynasty. Since then, through the Qin, Han, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties, tea in southern Yunnan not only became a tribute to the imperial court but also became an important material to exchange horses from Western Asia through barter trade. For thousands of years, southern Yunnan has been transported by caravan, exchanging tea for horses and trading tea. At the end of the Ming Dynasty and the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, Simao city built an “official road” from Pu’er city to Kunming city, the provincial capital, for the convenience of paying “Pu’er tea” to the capital. This Caravan Road, which goes north and south, east and west, is the ancient tea horse road which was later called “Southern Silk Road” internationally. The ancient tea horse road extends outward through the sea passage to America, Europe, Africa, and Oceania. 1

 On my journeys throughout China and particularly Yunnan province (each spring from 2012 to 2019, except 2014), I have come across places with above hundred years old tea trees in the Xishuangbanna region, as well as a thousand and above years old tea trees in Baoshan and Lincang region. The oldest tea tree is called Xiangzhuqing 香竹箐. But this one is of a different species then Camellia sinensis. According to Chinese research made in 2010, this tea tree is 3200 years old and belongs to the wild species called Camellia Taliensis (bearing the name of Dali town). This tree is also addressed as chazu 茶祖 the “tea ancestor”. This wild species of thousand years old tea trees with big trunk and high crown can be found all along the Lancang River in Baoshan and Lincang region. The common mark of its leaves is glossy texture without much hair and with quick oxidative properties, which is very suitable to produce Yesheng hongcha 野生红茶 – wild black tea. Some producers, however, produce also green Pu’er tea from its leaves, which can be of a very nice flowery taste, but much different to all Pu’er from big leaf variety. Local people in Mangshui town have another name for it – the Datang Hongku 大塘·红裤 – the “Red trousers from Big dike”. 

But let’s take it from the very bottom. All tea varieties can be divided into generative varieties (“有性系” you xingxi / sexual) spreading naturally by seeds, and vegetative varieties (“无性系” wu xingxi / asexual) spreading by cuttings. Generative varieties are also known as  “群体种” qunti zhong which means colony/group variety. Then almost all big tea trees in Yunnan are addresed as the Big leaf variety 大叶茶品种 daye cha pinzhong in Chinese and in Latin it is known as Camellia sinensis var. Assamica. These big leaf trees are divided into three varieties bearing the names of their places of origin: 凤庆种 Fengqing variety 勐库种Mengku variety, 勐海种 Menghai variety. These varieties differ in their trunk measurements, the height of the tree, the type of the tree crown, the shape and color of its leaves, which are most suitable to produce Pu’er tea 普洱茶 and hongcha 红茶 – we know it as black tea.2 Other group of trees are wild tea tree varieties which is commonly addressed as Yesheng chashu qunluo 野生茶树群落.

Speaking of old tea trees, it does not merely mean the old age of the tea tree, but also that the tree has deep roots with strong vitality to absorb sufficient nutrients. That can be reflected as a richness of substances in the tea. If we make a comparison of two teas from the same environment, tea from ancient trees would be more complex with longer lasting then the tea from small tea bushes.

From the age perspective, tea trees in Yunnan province can be divided into these categories

  1.  “千年野生古茶树 Qiannian yesheng gu chashu”
    Thousand-years wild tea trees (before and around the Tang Dynasty 618-907, over 1,000 years old)
  2. “大茶树 Da chashu” Big tea tree (500~1000 years old trees in Song Dynasty/ 960–1279)
  3. “原生态 古茶树 Yuan shengtai gu cha shu”
    Native ecological ancient tea tree (300~500 years old tea trees cultivated around Ming Dynasty / 1368 – 1644)
  4. “生态古茶树 Shengtai gu cha shu” or ecological”  ancient trees  (100-200 years old trees, Qing dynasty 1644 – 1911)
  5. 老茶树 Lao chashu Old tea trees (60-100 years old trees, Republic of China 1912-1949)
  6. 小茶树 Xiao chashu Small tea trees (35-60 years old trees, PRC 1949-1976)
  7. 台地茶树 Taidi chashu Plantation tea trees (After 1976 up Today 0-35 years)  

1. chinese book 解密软黄金 | 普洱茶品鉴;
2. chinese book茶源地理 临沧 吴垠/主编 文/杨钰鸾手绘/袁潮燊

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