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 sinensis is native to southeastern 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, more refined complexity and lower caffeine levels.
Who discovered Camellia Sinensis?
It is Reverend Georg Joseph Kamel, at the end of the seventeenth century, who uses for the first time the name Camellia sinesis. However it is not to him to be attributed the merit of having discovered the plant, neither to have given its name. It is Carlo Linneo who indicated the plant of green tea as Camellia sinensis, from the union of Camellia, in honor of Reverend Kamel, and sinesis, which in Latin means Chinese.
Linnaeus himself had published another work three years before however, his Specie plantarum, in which he still called it Thea sinensis. In the second edition of this work he abandoned this denomination and divided the plant in two distinct species: Thea viridis (with nine petals) and Thea bohea (with six petals).
Indian and Sinhalese botanists have long maintained the dual nomenclature of Camellia Thea.
Only in 1958, J. Robert Sealy definitively established the current taxonomic denomination with the publication A revision of the Genus Camellia published by the “Royal Horticultural Society”.
Characteristics of Camellia Sinensis
Camellia sinensis is an erect shrub, with ovate-acuminate leaves, with toothed margins, of a shiny light-green color; the simple flowers are small, white, with numerous yellow-gold stamens; it is native to the continental part of South and South-East Asia, but today it is cultivated all over the world, especially in tropical and subtropical regions.
In its natural state, it can grow well over two feet but, for ease of cultivation, it is generally kept to the size of an evergreen shrub or small tree. The roots are strong and the flowers can have a diameter of 4 centimeters and 7 or 8 petals. The leaves are 4 to 15 inches long, and 2 to 5 inches wide. A fresh leaf contains about 4 percent caffeine.
This plant is mainly cultivated in tropical and subtropical areas, where rainfall can reach 2 meters per year; the most suitable soil is acid and permeable, without water stagnation. The areas where it can be found are mainly in China, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Japan and Kenya However, it should be remembered this plant is cultivated in all continents, even in regions much more northern than the above mentioned areas: such as Cornwall.
The ideal temperature for its growth is between 10° and 30°C (50° and 86°F), and cultivations can also be found at an altitude of 2,500 m (6,500 ft) (it is right at higher altitudes that the most precious teas are often obtained). The vital cycle of Camellia sinensis lasts about fifteen years, even though there are wild specimens which are more than a century old.
There are 2 varieties of Camellia Sinensis
Camellia Sinensis Sinensis is used for the production of fine and delicate teas such as white teas and green teas, it grows in the mountains, above 2,500 meters of altitude. Leaves are narrow and shrubs are pretty tall (up to 5 meters), it flowers for about six months of the year and during winter it remains inactive, finding the energies to regenerate and keep nutrients; for this reason the first harvest of spring is particularly precious.
Camellia Sinensis Assamica is native to the Assam region, located north from India and cultivated in particular in Sri Lanka and Africa, it is used for the production of strong and dark teas as well as Oolong and Puer. Producing high quality Chinese teas remains a laborious process of hand picking and processing the whole leaves in order to maintain the full flavor 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 continuous development of new cultivation and processing techniques, has given us fine, high quality teas that 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 beverage of the highest quality, variety, delicacy, depth and complexity of taste and aroma.
Many teas, 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 flavor. This has been achieved through the control of 4 key elements:
- Region where the plant is located: soil and elevation are key factors;
- Leaf collection time: early, mid, or late in each season;
- Harvest method: harvest only of shoots or shoots with leaves;
- Processing type of the: withering, rolling, oxidation, drying and grading
Discover the different varieties of tea: All the colors of tea.
The leaves are spread out on large trays and left to dry either indoors or outdoors. This process softens the leaves by pulling moisture from the evaporating surface, thus natural enzymatic fermentation begins and the next processing step is set. This process also softens 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 is done by using machines to further subdivide the leaves by mechanical means. This improves oxidation and mixes the chemical elements of the stems with the leaves, removing bitterness and balancing the flavor of the tea.
Oxidation (partial and total)
This step used in Oolong and black tea continues the natural process of fermentation, allowing the leaves to rest after the phases of Withering or Blending. The time spent determines the amount of oxidation of the tea. At this point, the leaves turn a darker green or even a red color, due to the breaking of the cellular structure of the leaves. It is at this stage the tea begins to develop its herbal, flowery or fruity flavor characteristics.