Roland said

Tea Taxonomy

My understanding (please correct if wrong!) is that the tea plant as we commonly term it is a species – Genus Camellia, Species Sinensis – with two varieties (var. Sinensis and var. Assamica). There appears to be reference to subdivisions within these varieties – but what is the common term used – cultivars? Subvarieties? Forms?

Whatever term is used, how does this relate to tea production and taste? Does a particular tea type (Tie guan yin oolong for example) need to be made from a particular subvariety/whatever of tea?

I’ve got lots more questions in follow up to this, but any help with those 2 initial ones would be appreciated first :)

6 Replies
mbanu said

I’ve always heard of them referred to as cultivars. Assam and China tea can cross-breed, so the distinction can sometimes be a little hazy. They are distinctive enough in the way they look and taste to be a useful division, though.

Tea cultivars play a very significant role in the character of the end tea. Dr. Pradip Baruah of India’s Tea Research Association suggested in his recent book on the Assam tea industry that he felt that it was the number one most important variable in tea production, even more important than soil and climate.

Most of the famous styles of tea do have some limited form of origin appellation, but it can be a challenge to specify a particular cultivar due to historical reasons. Until the invention of planting tea via cuttings in the 1930s (clonal tea), all tea was grown from seed. So while over time there was a sort of selective pressure exerted on tea from one region vs. another, the result was a heterogeneous group of tea varietals all associated with one region, or even one plantation. Additionally, the tea bush is very long-lived; it can take years for a new one to becomes ready for plucking, and decades (or even centuries, if your yield expectations are low) before it is too old to produce tea. So any sort of controlled breeding before clonal tea cultivation was invented proceeded very very slowly. Many of the older tea plantations in northern India are still using the original seed-based tea bushes that were planted in the 1800s. Additionally, in countries where the plantation model of tea growth is less popular, tea leaf is simply purchased from local farmers for processing; this gives the factory a bit less control over what cultivar is being used, since they rely on farmer outreach programs rather than plantation management decisions.

While there has been some effort to breed “quality” tea clones, in practice most bred tea grown today is a compromise between quality and yield, usually with special attention paid to developing a natural resistance to some special problem (drought, borer beetles, etc.) Additionally, British-style and Chinese-style tea consumers seem to have many disagreements on what makes good tea, which I imagine would also result in each respective tea culture’s “quality” cultivars having different standards of reference. Sri Lanka (Ceylon tea) and Japan seem to have been the ones pushing clonal cultivation the most. Sri Lanka’s Tea Research Institute created many popular clones. At one time in the 1970s, almost 85% of tea grown in Japan was from a single clone known as “Yabukita”. Since the dangers of monoculture have been explored, they’ve stepped back from the brink, but it is still a very popular cultivar in Japan. I believe that Taiwan also has a heavy hand in tea clone breeding, through their Taiwan Tea Experiment Station. (At one time TTES #12/Jin Xuan was a fairly popular cultivar there for Dong Ding Oolongs.) Southern India also has gone into tee clones in a big way, although generally for yield and disease resistance purposes. The United Planters Association of Southern India (UPASI) has a Tea Research Foundation that has bred many notable tea clones… and of course the northern/southern seed/clonal divide in India is not absolute or anything like that. In Darjeeling there are a few clones that seem to be well thought of, such as Phoobsering 312, or Ambari Vegetative 2.

In China, there is a fascination over single famous tea bushes that doesn’t seem to exist elsewhere. For this market, clonal tea was amazing, as it allowed for the growth of essentially identical copies of these rare bushes in nearby growing regions at a dramatically reduced price, simply by increasing the quantity of tea available.

Definitely an interesting subject. :)

Wow. Great in-depth material. Thanks! : )

Awesome stuff! Thank you for all that. Good topic too, Roland. I was curious myself :)

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I believe there is a third major classification or variety, called, Camellia Sinensis var. Cambodi (Java bush), at least according to The Story of Tea, By Heiss and Heiss, page 38. They refer to it as a ‘subvariety’, along with China Bush and Assam Bush.

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Kittenna said

From what I understand, tea is one species with a few “varieties” (or from what I gather, members of the same species falling into classes which are perhaps morphologically different, but cannot truly be classified as separate species due to their ability to hybridize with one another), within which there are numerous cultivars each.

Also, just for interest’s sake, ‘cultivar’ means ‘cultivated variety’ :)

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Roland said

Thanks! Great information :)

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