Infusions made from the processed leaves of this plant are called tea as well.
The tea plant is a flowering evergreen shrub. From May on the plant blossoms with small, white, creamy or pink coloured flowers. Later in the year they become small spherical fruits with three seeds in the wooden shell.
All tea plants originated from two subspecies: var. sinensis (South West China) and var. assamica (Assam, North East India).
Every cup of tea we drink today comes from an artificial but economically very important type of tea plant: the Hybrid (or cultivar). These varieties are engineered to suit certain growing conditions and climates as well as to optimise the desired type of tea produced.
China tea bushes (var. sinensis) can grow up to four meters high, with small leaves (2-6cm) and have a very fine, characteristic aroma. Sinensis hybrids are mainly used to produce green teas (for instance our Mao Feng or Guangxi Snail) but also some black varieties like our Keemun Superior. The bush is cold/frost resistant and usually grows in mountain terrain up to 2000 metres.
The Assam variety was discovered by Europeans only between 1823-25. It is actually a tropical tree (15-20 metres), grows much quicker and has bigger leaves than the Chinese variety (10-20 cm, see image on front page). The flavour is strong and hearty and therefore mostly used to produce black teas.
Similar to the production of wine, the taste and quality of tea are influenced by many important contributory factors: climate, soil, altitude, weather conditions, when and how it is plucked and processed. Tea leaves grow slower at high altitude where they can develop more flavour and a better quality. Many of the worlds most famous teas, high grown Ceylon, fine Darjeeling or Oolong teas come from bushes cultivated 1000-2000 m above sea level.
Whether it is green, black, Oolong, Pu Erh or white tea, they all come from the same plant. The differences lie in the plant cultivars, the growing conditions, the harvest and in the different processing of the leaves.
The tea plant is reproduced by cuttings (a twig with one leaf and one bud). They are grown for 6-18 months (depending on location and weather) in a nursery before they can be planted into the field. It is very important to cut the bushes regularly. After 2-3 years growing and constant cutting the plant reaches a height of approx. 1 metre with a dense roof of twigs and leaves. Now the plucking can start.
The tea leaves are picked between Spring and Autumn. Depending on location, weather and the sort of plant the leaves can be picked every 7th - 14th day. The traditional way of plucking is to take the unopened bud and the next two tender leaves because they contain the best aroma and most health benefits.
Assamica tea bush, photo by Martin Mehner