Plants, Varieties, Cultivars and Terroirs.
What is the Tea Plant, its Cultivars, and its Terroirs?
In this series of articles, we are going to cover the wonderful world of tea. We will concentrate on Japanese tea because that is what Chado Tea House specializes in.
For this first installment, we will talk about the tea plant in general and how it has been developed by selective breeding to produce the teas we enjoy.
Tea is the most consumed beverage in the world, next to water. The earliest record of tea being drunk is from almost 5000 years ago in China. Legend has it that the Emperor was partial to drinking boiled water, and one day a tea leaf from a wild tea plant blew into his bowl of water; he enjoyed the unexpected brew, and tea has been with us ever since.
Introduction of Tea to Japan
Tea has been enjoyed in Japan since the eighth century. The first seeds were thought to have been brought to Japan in the 11th Century by the monk Eisai. The Monk Eisai traveled to China and studied Buddhism there for several years. When he returned to Japan, he brought back with him not only his knowledge of the Buddhist Religion but also precious seeds of the tea plant he had enjoyed in China.
We can thank this monk for your morning treat of freshly prepared Matcha. That calming drink of Sencha during the day or a special lovingly prepared Gyokuro that you can enjoy with friends.
Tea is now grown in many countries, China, Japan, India – even in our garden in Vancouver, but we are not planning to go to market with it yet; we have one plant and keeping it alive in the winter is the primary concern with it right now.
We are focused on Japanese green tea, but the remarkable fact is that for all its varieties, preparation methods, service rituals, and seemingly unlimited tastes, all tea comes from only one plant. The plant is Camellia Sinensis. That delicate Gyokuro tea, prepared at just the right temperature and steeped for just the right amount of time, comes from the same plant as the strong black tea my grandmother would have consumed with lots of milk and two sugars after letting it brew for a good 10 minutes.
We are not covering herbal teas like chamomile tea; I drank a lot of chamomile tea in my youth, mainly at the behest of the same grandmother listed above, chamomile tea was the answer to all life’s woe in her opinion but that and other herbal teas are not our concern here and do not come from the single tea plant.
Everything else – black, Oolong, Pu-erh, green, white, and yellow- comes from the same plant.
This will get us into a bit of botany here to explain how plants are categorized, so it is a bit technical. This is certainly not a definitive guide, but hopefully, it will be helpful.
Thanks to dedicated, smart, curious people, like Aristotle almost 2500 years ago, the living things in the world have been categorized into what is known as a taxonomy.
We are interested in plants; plants and animals are separated at the Kingdom level.
Plants fall into four types:
Mosses and Worts – do not have a vascular system to transport water
Ferns – have a vascular system and rely on water to reproduce
Gymnosperms – no flowers, rely on wind to pollinate
Angiosperms – have flowers, and rely on pollinators (think bees) to reproduce
As mentioned, there is one plant we are interested in, the tea plant or Camellia Sinensis. This plant has three species or varieties.
Asian - Sinensis
Indian - Assamica
African - Cambodi
The Cambodi variety is very seldom used for tea, so in terms of tea, we can put that aside.
How can so much variety come from a single plant? One of the central answers is cultivars.
Cultivars are cultivated varieties and it's where humans get involved in the tea-making process.
There are many techniques during the growing, harvesting and processing of the tea after harvest that go into making the distinct flavor and appearance of the likes of Sencha, Gyokuro, Genmaicha and many more. In this article, we are going to concentrate here on the plant and its cultivars.
This is how the tea plant fits into the taxonomy.
Most Japanese tea is of the variety Sinesis; its full name is Camellia Sinesis var Sinesis. There are a few exceptions; probably the most well-known is Benifuuki which is a cultivar with origins in both Sinesis and Assamica.
So far, we know that the tea plant exists in its natural form, the varieties are also naturally occurring.
When Tea reproduces, it does so with the help of pollinators. A pollinator, bee, for example, take pollen from the male part of the plant’s flower, called the stamen/anther, to the female part of the flower, called the stigma/pistil of the same or a different plant. When a new tea plant grows, it has mostly the same characteristics as its parent plants, but it is not an exact copy. Sometimes the parent plants may produce a plant that is more resistant to cold weather than the ancestors of that plant; in fact a plant can grow a new limb that is different from the rest of the plant - these variations happen naturally but is also where cultivars come in.
Cultivars are the next leg in separating the tea plant from its origins to the tea we drink.
Farmers are able to take the most attractive traits from one tea plant and combine them with features from another plant and produce a cultivated variant – a cultivar. It is hoped that the cultivar will have the particular traits that the farmer is looking for. This might be a specific hardiness or a resistance to a pest.
There are many cultivars of tea. There are international bodies that control cultivar naming and assignment. New cultivars are developed all the time.
The cultivar is not the end of the story when it comes to growing the tea plant that is used to produce the final product.
Another very important aspect is the environment where the cultivar is grown – this is called the terroir. A cultivar may work well in a warm environment but not be suited to colder climates.
Terroir covers a wide range of factors, soil conditions, elevation, farming practices, and many other related factors related to the growing of the tea.
To sum up, the tea plant has a few varieties that have been developed into many cultivars that have then been grown for tea production in certain regions – each step along the way influences how the final product will taste.
There is much more to tea production than this, and we will cover production methods in another article.
Here are some important cultivars associated with Japanese tea.
This cultivar was first bred in 1908 and is the most extensively used cultivar in Japan; it is a frost-resistant plant. In Shizouka, almost 95% of all tea produced in that prefecture is Yabukita based. Primarily used for Sencha production.
About 5% of production is from this cultivar; it is mainly found in Kagoshima Prefecture and is most suitable for warm climates. The plants from this cultivar tend to be very green.
Approximately 2% of tea production in Japan is from this cultivar; this one is especially important in the Kyushi region, often used for Matcha and Gyokuro production.
When the farmer puts this all together, this is what we get: