Monday, January 18, 2016

Does All Tea Really Come from the Same Plant?

The answer to this age old question is yes...but it's not exactly that simple. All tea comes from the same species of evergreen plant, Camellia Sinensis. That means that other plants commonly referred to as tea like chamomile, peppermint and rooibos are not actually tea. Shocking, I know! It is the processing of the leaves that determines what type of tea it becomes. Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing a green tea plant or a black tea plant. There are many varieties of Camellia but most are used as ornamental shrubbery.
Sorry, I couldn't resist that one!
The two main taxonomic varieties used to make the tea that we drink are Camellia Sinensis var. Sinensis and Camellia Sinensis var. Assamica. I've heard tell of teas being made from var. Japonica but apparently they aren't nearly as tasty. The var. Sinensis is generally a smaller leaved variety that prefers slightly cooler climates. The var. Assamica is larger leaved and is found in warmer climates like Assam and Yunnan Province in China. Left to grow in their natural state the Assamica tends to grow into a larger tree. Camellia Sinensis is believed to have originated in Asia

Within those two varieties there is a lot of genetic diversity. You might hear the words variety or cultivar tossed about but what do they really mean? You can think of variety as a naturally occurring phenotype, or observable trait. Once that variety is cultivated by man it is often then referred to as a cultivar (cultivated variety). +Tony Gebely does a much better job of explaining this than I ever could so if you'd like to know more, check out his blog post Tea Varieties and Cultivars.

Where a plant is grown does not change the cultivar (unless of course it is then selectively bred for a different trait in the new location). Tie Guan Yin is still Tie Guan Yin whether it is grown in Anxi, China or Muzha, Taiwan. Some varieties are better suited for certain climates or for making certain types of tea. They can also be selected for resistance to drought, particular pests or diseases.
Anji Bai Cha - a cultivar known for its pale leaves
Zhi Ye - "Purple" Puerh
I'm a recreational tea nerd so this article is just a brief overview that is meant to inspire further exploration. I find the best way to discover the different cultivars is to look them up each time you try a new one. What better way to learn than to taste your way through them all? One of my favorite things about tea is that it's a never ending rabbit hole. It's impossible to try them all, which means that I'll never get bored.

Additional Resources