Tea, or Camellia Sinensis if we are to use its scientific name, is a plant revered all over the world. From Britain to Japan. Russia to New Zealand. Tea in all its marvelous forms and infusions has been a go-to beverage throughout much of human history. But where and how does tea grow exactly? Where does tea come from? And what are the factors that contribute to make tea the pleasant comfort drink it is today?
The first records of tea consumption go back to China more than 2000 years ago. According to Chinese legend, the god of agriculture, Shennong, was drinking boiled water under a tree. An auspicious wind blew leaves from a nearby tree into his cup. After tasting the new drink made from the boiled leaves, the god-emperor decided that this new drink must be shared with the whole country. Other myths portray tea serving as the antidote for the potentially poisonous herbs Shennong was tasting for his research into medicinal plants.
Guo Xu, Shennong Chewing a Branch, 1503, China during the Ming Dynasty
Another myth features the patriarch of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma creating tea. Bodhidharma kept falling asleep while meditating, and in a furious rage, ripped his eyelids off. The falling eyelids hit the ground and began to grow into the first green tea plant. As fanciful and miraculous as these tales are, Camellia sinensis is most likely originated in the area of northern Burma and the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces of China.
There are 3 main strains of tea plant. First is Camellia sinensis sinensis or China tea, which possesses the smallest leaves. Second is Camellis sinensis assamica, or Assam tea, named after the region where it was originally grown. The Assam variety has the largest leaves. Third is the Camellia assamica subspecies lasiocaly. This type is known as Cambodian tea and has leaves that fall in between the size range of the other two varieties. All three types of tea plants are believed to have originated from one wild source plant.
Camellia sinensis sinensis (China tea), Anhui, China
The tea plant is actually a type of evergreen tree, and can reach heights of 16 meters (52 feet). But, most tea trees are pruned to remain around waist-high to ensure for easier plucking of the leaves. Some of the major factors that contribute to optimum tea cultivation are temperature, rainfall, soil quality, elevation and light. Like its origins along the Burmese and the southwestern Chinese border, tea generally thrives in tropical and subtropical conditions. The ideal temperature for tea plants is between 13 Celsius (55 degrees Fahrenheit) to 32 Celsius (89 degrees Fahrenheit). But there are types of tea that have been adapted to more northern, oceanic climates.
As for rainfall, tea plants thrive in areas where the annual rainfall is at least 127 centimeters (50 inches) yearly. However, more abundant rainfall is more conducive to maximum growing conditions. The soil quality for tea affects the plant’s ability to absorb nutrients and contribute to healthy growth. Tea plants prefer acidic soil that ranges from 4.5 to 5 on the ph scale. The soil for tea plants must be highly conducive to drainage. Drainage is the permeability the soil has in relation to water.
Wild white peony (Baimudan) grown to more than 2 meters tall in Fujian, China
For elevation, most tea is produced at higher altitudes. This does not necessarily mean tea cannot be produced at lower elevation, but higher quality teas are produced at elevations of 1,500 meters (4,900 feet) above sea level to a maximum of 2400 Meters (8000 Feet). The higher altitudes lead to moisture developing as rain, clouds and fog as the vapors cool in the rising air. The development of clouds over the tea plants leads us to the next factor of growing tea plants, light.
According to a study, “Because the tea plant originated as an understory plant in tropical rainforests, its photosynthetic apparatus is adapted to function with maximum capacity under shade.” (Hajiboland, “Environmental and nutritional requirements for tea cultivation”) As one ascends higher up a mountain, the density of clouds and fog increases, thus allowing the tea plants to grow to their maximum potential. In terms of market performance this also leads to tea produced at higher altitudes fetching a higher price. This is due to its higher quality in regards to taste, which is regarded as being sweeter and more delicate compared to lowland grown teas.
Tea gardens are dispersed in the Wuyi Mountain area in Fujian, China
So there is tea, but now where to find it? The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has reported the top ten tea producing nations listing from highest to lowest: China, India, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Turkey, Indonesia, Myanmar, Iran and Bangladesh. A few of these countries may sound surprising given that tea thrives in tropical to subtropical climates with plenty of rainfall. For example, Kenya, the only African and also the only non-Asian producer, the proper tea growing variables are all met in the Limuru region. The Limuru region is a highland and agricultural zone in Kenya. It is tropical and experiences plenty of rainfall to meet the ideal growing conditions.
Tea Harvest in Kenya
As for Iran, a country known for having a dryer, more arid climate especially in comparison to many of the other countries on this list, happens to grow tea in special regions. Iran’s northern Gilan and Mazandaran provinces are along the coast of the Caspian Sea. The more moist and humid weather of these regions, along with its plentiful highlands and mountains mixed with the climate produced from the Caspian, has created a special region for tea production in an otherwise agriculturally unviable place for tea production.
Turkey, likewise, generally has a dry, arid climate with not enough rainfall to contribute to tea-friendly growing areas. But also like Iran, Turkey produces tea in the specialized Rize region, which lies in Turkey’s northeast. Just like the Gilan and Mazandaran regions in Iran, this area lies on the coast of the Black sea and experiences far more rainfall than the rest of the country. The presence of the Kaçkar Mountains buffers the region from the harsher climates of the surrounding area. The Rize region lies on the windward side of the mountains and reaps the benefits of the high levels of precipitation and rains that blow inward from the Black Sea.
Tea plantation in Turkey
Camellia sinensis is truly a remarkable and marvelous plant, and produces a just as equally remarkable drink! It takes very specialized conditions and very specific variables for tea plants to grow. Even in countries that generally do not fit this climate profile, tea is still able to thrive in at least one or two regions or special growing areas that suit the conditions for tea cultivation. So whether the mythic accounts of tea’s discovery by Shennong, or the harrowing story of its creation by Bodhidharma are true or not, it can be agreed that tea in all its forms is an incredible plant, rightfully beloved around the globe!
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