Lesson 1 : What Is Tea? – The Tea Plant, Camellia Sinensis

My Little Tea School - The 101 of Tea

Tea… what is it?

Tea is an infusion beverage derived from the tea plant, “Camellia Sinensis”. In contrast, infusion beverages based on other herbs, fruit or spices are actually not tea. However, in English and some other western languages, the term “tea” is often used for such “tisanes”, too. For example, “chamomile tea” …

What Actually Is Tea? - 2 different concepts of 'tea' in the English language
click graphic to enlarge

However, the origin of the word “tea” is actually clear… Originating from a Chinese dialect, it was first brought by the Dutch from China to Europe by sea together with the tea itself (the one from the tea plant!) in the 17th century. When the British took over the tea trade between China and Europe in the 19th century, they adopted the term. Accordingly, “tea” became the word for tea in all languages of countries and cultures at the stopover and end points of that sea trade route. That is, most languages established their own adaptions of it… Examples for such adaptions are ‘thé’ in French, ‘thee’ in Dutch, ‘té’ in Spanish and ‘Tee’ in German.

In turn, where tea from China has reached foreign countries on the land route, it is the (also Chinese) word “Cha”, which has coined the corresponding terminology in the languages of the countries and regions along the way. Examples for this would be the Indian word ‘Chai’ or the Turkish word ‘çay’. Moroccan language use illustrates the described effect most nicely. Because in Morocco, which is within the sphere of influcence of both by the ancient land and sea route of tea, there are two words for tea: ‘Atay’ (von ‘Tee’) und ‘Kahwa’ (from ‘Cha’).

Ancient Land and Sea Trade Routes of Tea From China to Europe and Russia - Map by SiamTee
click picture to enlarge

The Tea Plant – Camellia Sinensis

Originally, the Camellia Sinensis comes from Southeast Asia. Its evolutionary “cradle” there comprises the region of present-day China, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, northern Thailand, and the northeastern tip of India. In these countries, ancient tea trees grow up to 20 meters high, with up to 15cm long leaves. However, thanks to its adaptability to different “terroirs” (interplay between climate and soil), the tea plant has since “conquered” more regions both in Asia and in the whole world. Most of the resulting subspecies of Camellia Sinensis don’t reach tree height, but grow as bushes of different heights.

Wild growing tea trees in northernmost Vietnam
Wild growing tea trees in northernmost Vietnam

The propagation of the tea plant can take place in two possible ways. One of these is the propagation through the seeds of the tea plant, and the other is through the cultivation of cut-offs, so-called “clones”. Now, advantages of the progagation through cut-offs are the higher number of potential “descendants” and shorter time to picking maturity. However, the method prevalent today in commercial tea cultivation also has disadvantages. So, the roots of the clones grow on a relatively superficial level only. In contrast, the strongly branched roots of tea plants grown from the see reach up to more than 2 meters deep into the soil. It is therefore often said that seed-grown tea plants have a richer supply of active ingredients than clones.

Tea seeds on "Tuyet Shan" tea trees, northernmost Vietnam
Tea seeds on “Tuyet Shan” tea trees, northernmost Vietnam

In commercial cultivation, in order to maximize accessibility and yield, tea plants are cut back once a year. At this, the exact height of the cut-back depends on a plant’s age and variety. After the cut, the tea plant drives new shoots at the cutting points. This considerably increases the amount of tea leaves eligible for picking – and thus the yield.

Periodically cut-back tea bushes in the tea garden - Bihar, India
Periodically cut-back tea bushes in the tea garden – Bihar, India

Varietal Diversity = Diversity of Tea

Both evolution and commercial cultivation were driving motors behind today’s great diversity of tea plant varieties and cultivars. Roughly, we can divide these into 4 major subspecies:

  • Camellia Sinensis Sinensis (small-leaved)
  • Camelia Sinensis Assamica (large-leaved)
  • Camellia Sinensis Dehungensis (large-leaved)
  • Camellia Sinensis Pubilimba (large-leaved)

Furthermore, depending on the respective place of origin and the type of cultivation, there are virtually inumerable sub-varieties in particular of the Camellia Sinensis Sinensis. In this regard, it is important to know that any variety will produce a comparable tea, i. e. remain true to itself, only under comparable terroir conditions. Therefore, many teas are “origin-bound”. Good examples for such include Wuyishan rock teas and Hangzhou Long Jing tea, as well as Darjeeling teas.

Da Hong Pao tea bushes in Wuyishan, Fujian, China
Da Hong Pao tea bushes in Wuyishan, Fujian, China

Now, terroir and variety are not the only factors contributing to a specific tea’s identy. Depending on the processing method, we further differentiate between 6 processing categories of tea:

  • green tea
  • black tea
  • white tea
  • oolong tea (also: ‘blue tea’)
  • yellow tea
  • pu erh tea (also: ‘dark tea’)
Yunnan tea tree - driving new shoots after cut-back
Yunnan tea tree – driving new shoots after cut-back

More about this and what else is responsible for the exact “type” of a tea in your cup and its respective qualities is the topic of My Little Tea School’s Lesson 2 : What Makes the Tea in your Cup?.

Recommended sources and accompanying materials

As accompanying materials for this lesson 1 of My Little Tea School, I recommend reading he following richly illustrated ind-depth articles in Siam Tea Blog:

Test Your Tea Knowledge – Lesson 1

Assessment of Your Training Success, Lesson 1 - Tick the correct answer(s)

1. In everyday language, the word "tea" can have the following meanings:
2. Tea in the strict sense are
3. The botanical name of the tea plant is
4. The tea plant's geographical origin and main area of prevalence is
5. The word "tea" originated
6. The propagation of the tea plant takes place through
7. The cut branch of a tea plant
8. At the cut...
9. A classically scented tea is a
10. An example of a classically scented tea is
11. Which of the following statements are correct?
12. The 4 main subvarieties of Camellia Sinensis are

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