Origin and evolutionary spread of the tea plant in China and South East Asia
Yunnan – the cradle of tea?
The south Chinese province of Yunnan is usually referred to as the place of origin of the tea plant. Until today, the province is famous for its Pu Eerh teas, produced from tea leaves of descendants of the ancient Yunnan tea tree. There is evidence that the tea plant has been thriving in Yunnan before ever reaching Assam in India. Still, the large-leafed tree form of the Camellia Sinensis goes by the name “Camellia Sinensis Assamica“.
Close relatives of the ancient tea tree, however, are also to be found in some regions beyond Yunnan’s borders, namely Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. This suggests that Yunnan might not be the only region rightfully claiming the title “cradle of tea”. Still, Yunnan’s central role in the evolution of the tea plant remains undeniable. In particular, the fact that we don’t have only one tea plant today, but a virtually uncountable number of varieties, in mainly due the evolutionary spread of the tea plant from Yunnan within China.
Evolutionary spread of the tea plant within China
From Yunnan, 4 lines of the tea plant’s evolutionary spread to other regions within China can be drawn:
- From Yunnan via the nowadays provinces of Guangxi and Guangdong to Hainan
- From Yunnan via the nowadays provinces of Guizhou, Hunan, Jianxi and Fujian to Taiwan
- From Yunnan via the nowadays provinces of Sichuan, Chongqing, Hubei and Anhui to Jiangsu
- From Yunnan via the nowadays provinces of Sichuan and Shaanxi to Henan
Emergence of new tea plant varieties
These lines of evolutionary spread of the tea plant within China are of crucial importance for gaining an understanding of the development of different tea plant varieties. It is evident that the tea plant – along with its leaves – takes on an ever smaller size along these lines. So, for example, there are intermediate stages of development – so-called half-tree tea bushes – to be found in the Fenghuangshan and the Wuyi Mountains. And we find the smallest tea bushes and leaves at the end points of those spread lines, in Hainan, Taiwan, Jiangsu und Henan.
This development is explained through the evolutionary adaption of the original tea tree from Yunnan to the prevailing natural conditions each new place respectively. On which mechanisms exactly such processes are based might be some higher level of science. What is clear, though, is that we certainly owe the abundance of different tea plant varieties in China to that evolutionary development. The reason, why a Long Jing green tea from Hangzhou is not even close to being the same than a Bi Luo Chun green tea from Jiangsu. And the reason why you can’t just take a Long Jing tea plant from Hangzhou and cultivate it in Jiangsu just the same. Or somewhere else, for that matter, such as in Great Britain, or in the United States.
The 1000 faces of the Camellia Sinensis
The tea plant variety a tea is yielded from is that tea’s most identity-defining property or characteristic. Being of influence on an even more basic level than the specific conditions of cultivation, picking period and processing type, it is the most decisive factor for a tea’s taste and aroma. Now, thanks to the described evolutionary development, there have been virtually countless different tea plant varieties – and consequently likewise innumerable types of tea – existing in China for quite a long time already, each of them with its individual taste and aroma. A world that one human lifespan will hardly be enough to fully explore.
Spread of the tea plant within south-east Asia and beyond
As already mentioned above, the tea tree in its original type or types closely related to it has been existing across south-east Asian countries since ancient times alike. The small bushes varieties – Camellia Sinensis Sinensis – on the other hand does not occur in countries outside of China as a result of evolutionary processes. Much rather, the spread of such varieties to south-east Asian countries such as India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Thailand was done by the human. The smaller plants, which are easier to handle and propagate and supposedly yield greater economic benefits, have been brought to new places for cultivation. The same applies to modern days’ tea cultivation regions outside south-east Asia, such as for example Kenia.
Varieties and cultivars
What actually is the difference between a variety and a cultivar? Good question, though there’s always an answer on such, too…
The German Duden defines the the term “variety” in the biological contexts as a “variation” and synonymous with the terms “form” and “variant”. The term “cultivar”, though actually a common German word, is not know there. Here, Wikipedia does not only help out, but also delivers the key to distinction between the two terms: “cultivar or cultivation variety is a cultivated plant type that is different from other, related types based on morphological, physiological, cytological, chemical or other characteristics “.
Both terms are basically about distinguishing sub-types of a main category. Whether a set of characteristics, distinction or individuality criteria makes a specific sub-type being called a variety or a cultivar is in each case determined by the actual entity being responsible for its creation. If it is created by nature, and thereby related to an evolutionary process, we tend to speak of a variety. Where in turn it was us, who caused a type to come into existence, e. g. through geographic shift or breeding, we speak of a cultivar instead.
However, we very often find both terms being used synonymous and without respect to the distinction made above.
Examples for typical cultivars
As a good example for typical cultivars serves the portfolio of Taiwan-bred Oolong tea cultivars. During the 1960’s and 70’s, Taiwan started a large-scale project of breeding individual Oolong tea cultivars. The resulting cultivars were meant to meet specific climate, geological and technical requirement profiles. For example, in dedicated, specifically set-up “Tea Research and Extension Stations (TRES)”, cultivars with increased resistance against pest of fungus infestation were bred. Meanwhile, Taiwan successfully exports these cultivars to other, not south east Asian countries. For example, Taiwanese hybrids are successfully cultivated in Thailand, Vietnam, or even New Zealand.
Another good example for a typical cultivar is the Japanese Jabukita cultivar. On top of the specific type of green tea flavor favored in Japan, the Jabukita tea plant offers another property that makes it particularly economic. All of its branches grow straight upwards, and not sideward or in any other angle to the tea plant’s main stem. This makes it particularly suitable for machine-picking, the picking type most common for Japan. Moreover, this way the plant needs only very little space in the tea garden, enabling a highly dense cover, so that no space is “wasted”. So, both the cultivar’s taste and economic properties become the driving forces of its development and spread. While its specific properties have been nurtured and promoted in Japan in a targeted manner for a long time already, the cultivar today represents almost 80% of the country’s total cultivated tea plants.
If you found this article interesting, then please also read the first part of my 2-article series “What actually is tea?”,