The tea plant is known by the botanical name Camellia sinensis. There are just a few types of the tea plant, which are used to produce the five staple true teas including green tea and black tea. These teas contain varying levels of caffeine and boast health benefits ranging from immune support to improved relaxation. Grab yourself a cup of tea and learn more about the tea plant including the two main types plus how it’s cultivated and harvested.
There are two main varieties of tea plant: one that in native to China and one that is native to India. Here, we’ll break down the differences between the two types.
This type of tea plant was originally discovered in China and is characterized by small leaves. The tea bushes are cold tolerant and typically grow at high elevations. The plant is most commonly found in the high mountainous regions of China and Japan but is now found across the globe. Since these plants are grown in colder and cloudier climates, they grow more slowly than other types of tea plants. High elevation teas tend to offer a more nuanced flavor and delicate aroma. This small leaf tea plant is mainly used to produce green tea, white tea, and oolong tea.
This type of tea plant is cultivated in India and is grown in tropical climates at lower elevations. The leaves of this tea plant are much larger than their Chinese counterparts. The tea is also known as Assam tea and is one of the most famous teas from India. Darjeeling, another popular Indian tea is actually cultivated using the Chinese tea plant since this type of black tea is grown at higher altitudes in Northern India.
While popularly grown in India, this broadleaf cultivar is also grown in the moist, wet climates of the Szechuan and Yunnan provinces of China. The tea leaves are dark green and feature a shiny sheen dotted by white flowers. This Camellia sinensis plant enjoys full sun and warm climates to produce earthy notes and is largely used to make black tea or pu-erh tea.
Tea plants are actually evergreen shrubs or small trees that grow quite tall. Most tea gardens prune the shrubs to 6 feet to make plucking and harvesting easier. The tea plant boasts a strong root ball and flowers each year, typically with seven or eight petals on each flower. In general, the tea tree enjoys climates that receive at least 50 inches of rainfall annually and can be cultivated in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) hardiness zones 7 to 9. The small tree thrives in acidic soils, which should be well-drained as standing water can cause root rot.
The tea plants are used to produce different types of tea, depending on the age and quality of the tea leaves. Most harvests occur in spring and the finest teas use only the young tea leaves and leaf buds from each shoot. Regularly pruning the plant encourages new growth, increasing the yield of each plant.
Tea plantations harvest the new leaves using machinery or workers who remove the leaves by hand. Most high-quality tea is harvested by hand, though large producers may use machinery to speed up the process. The young leaves are plucked from the plant and placed in large wicker baskets. They are then withered and dried. After this point, different types of teas undergo a different production process. Green tea and white tea are the most minimally produced meaning they are mainly withered and dried in direct sunlight and then packaged for sale. The minimal processing produces a vegetal flavor that can have umami or sweet hints.
Oolong tea, black tea, and pu-erh tea are oxidized teas. After the withering and drying process, the leaves undergo an oxidation process where enzymes in the leaves react with oxygen. The result is dark brown teas that offer earthy and nutty flavors. Oolong tea is only partially oxidized — anywhere between 8 and 80 percent — while black tea is fully oxidized. Pu-erh tea is unique as it is an aged tea. After the oxidation process, the leaves are covered with moist towels that promote healthy bacterial growth. These teas have layered tasting notes and can be aged for as long as 50 years.
The tea production process is similar in most regions, but flavors of tea can vary widely depending on when and where they are produced. Location is everything as tea plants offer different flavors based on the climate, soil, and growing methods. Teas also have different flavors depending on when the leaves were harvested. The best teas are harvested during the first flush or first harvest of the year. Older teas leaves boast stronger, more acidic flavors compared to these early teas. For example, shincha green tea is harvested during the first flush while tea from the second harvest is known as bancha. There are also teas made using the stems and twigs of the plant rather than the leaves, which are known as kukicha teas.
Tea plants were cultivated tens of thousands of years ago and have remained one of the most popular beverages on the planet. While the tea plant produces the five true teas, there are thousands of other plants that can be used to make herbal teas such as peppermint and hibiscus. Each tea offers a unique flavor and a beautiful tea story that makes every cup more enjoyable. Discover your love for tea, pour yourself a cup, and savor what the day has in store for you.
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