All tea comes from a single plant known as Camellia sinensis. It is an evergreen shrub that grows like a small tree. The sub-species Camellia Sinensis Sinensisis native to south-eastern China. The plants can live up to 100 years or more and the leaves are harvested throughout the year.
It has a lower yield than its Indian cousin, a more refined complexity and lower caffeine levels.
Who discovered Camellia sinensis?
It was the Reverend Georg Joseph Kamel, in the late 17th century, who first used the name Camellia Sinesis.
However, he is not credited with discovering Camellia Sinensis, nor with naming it. It was Carlo Linneo who referred to the green tea plant as Camellia sinensis, from the combination of Camellia, in honour of the Reverend Kamel, and sinesis, which means Chinese in Latin.
Linnaeus himself had published another work three years earlier, however, his Specie plantarum, in which he again called it Thea sinensis. In the second edition of this work he abandoned this name and divided the plant into two distinct species: Thea viridis (with nine petals) and Thea bohea (with six petals).
Indian and Sinhalese botanists have long maintained the double nomenclature of Camellia Thea.
It was not until 1958 that J. Robert Sealy finally established the current taxonomic denomination with his publication A revision of the Genus Camellia published by the Royal Horticultural Society.
Characteristics of Camellia Sinensis
Camellia sinensis is an upright shrub with ovate-acuminate, toothed leaves of a glossy light green colour; the small, simple white flowers bear numerous golden-yellow stamens; it is native to mainland South and Southeast Asia, but is now cultivated throughout the world, especially in tropical and subtropical regions.
Camellia Sinensis in its natural state can grow well over two metres, but for ease of cultivation it is generally kept to the size of an evergreen bush or small tree. The roots are strong and the flowers can have a diameter of 4 centimetres and 7 or 8 petals. The leaves are 4 to 15 cm long and 2 to 5 cm wide. A fresh leaf contains about 4% caffeine.
Camellia sinensis is mainly grown in tropical and subtropical areas, where rainfall can reach 2 metres per year; the most suitable soil is acidic and permeable, without waterlogging. The areas where it can be found are mainly in China, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Japan and Kenya. However, it should be remembered that this plant is cultivated on all continents, even in regions much further north than the areas mentioned above, such as Cornwall.
The ideal temperature for its growth is between 10° and 30°C, and cultivations can be found even at an altitude of 2,500 m (it is at higher altitudes that the finest teas are often obtained). The life cycle of Camellia sinensis lasts for about fifteen years, although there are wild specimens that exceed a century in age.
There are two varieties of Camellia Sinensis
Camellia Sinensis Sinensis is used for the production of fine and delicate teas such as white and green teas. It grows in the mountains, above an altitude of 2,500 metres. The leaves are narrow and the shrubs are quite tall (up to 5 metres), it flowers for about six months of the year and during the winter it remains dormant, finding the energy to regenerate and retain nutrients, which is why the first harvest in spring is particularly valuable.
The Camellia Sinensis Assamica is from the Assam region north of India and cultivated mainly in Sri Lanka and Africa, it is used for the production of strong, dark teas as well as Oolong and Pu’er. Producing high quality Chinese teas involves a laborious process of hand picking and processing the whole leaves to maintain the full flavour of the tea leaf.
Through the Song, Tang, Ming and Qing dynasties and into our modern era, the Chinese people’s love and respect for nature, combined with the continual development of new growing and processing techniques, has given us the fine, high quality teas we enjoy today. With the recovery of the Chinese economy and the growth of the tea industry, discerning tea drinkers in the West are rediscovering this drink of the highest quality, variety, delicacy, depth and complexity of taste and aroma.
Many teas, only one plant
Over the centuries, Chinese brewers have been able to produce thousands of varieties of tea from this single Camellia Sinensis plant, each with its own unique flavour. This was achieved by controlling 4 basic elements:
- Region where the plant is located: soil and altitude are key factors;
- Time of leaf collection: beginning, middle or end of each season;
- Harvesting method: harvest only of shoots or shoots with leaves;
- Type of processing of: raisining, rolling, oxidation, drying and grading
The leaves are spread out on large trays and left to dry either indoors or outdoors. This process softens the leaves by drawing moisture out of the evaporating surface, thus starting the natural enzymatic fermentation and setting up the next processing step. This process also attenuates the herbaceous taste of the tea leaves.
Also known as ‘Shaking’ in Chinese, because in the past the leaves were simply shaken in a wicker basket. Today, this operation is carried out with the aid of machines to further subdivide the leaves. This improves oxidation and mixes the chemical elements of the stems with the leaves, removing bitterness and balancing the flavour of the tea.
Oxidation (partial and total)
This step used in Oolong and black tea continues the natural fermentation process, allowing the leaves to rest after the withering or blending phases. The time elapsed determines the amount of oxidation of the tea. At this point, the leaves turn a darker green or even a red colour, due to the breakdown of the cell structure of the leaves. It is at this stage that the tea begins to develop its grassy, flowery or fruity flavour characteristics.