My Thai host stretches his sun-browned arm toward me: “Have some tea.” It’s not a steaming beverage poured from a teapot, but a shapeless wad looking like over-cooked spinach.
I’m confused and a bit squeamish. It looks like a slug of chewing tobacco. It must be something concocted by the locals of the northern Thai village, perhaps a kind of tea I hadn’t encountered in my decades as a tea merchant. I hide my reticence, warily return my host’s smile and place my trust in the god of tea.
I was looking at cha miang – steamed, bamboo-fermented tea leaves unique to SE Asia. Leaving aside the question of how cha miang is processed, which bacterium is recruited to make it and how it’s eaten (which I may get to in a future post), I was surprised to learn it’s made from leaves gathered from old wild tea trees growing in the forest.
Tasting wild tea in a world dominated by industrially-farmed food is to be invited into a secret garden, a prehistoric vault where a genetic treasury of native plants is kept.
WILD TEA ORIGINS
Tea originated and evolved within an arc of ancient forests across Southeast Asia, a “fertile crescent” from which the ancestor of Camellia sinensis dispersed naturally and by human agency throughout the world.
The five sub-regions of the tea Fertile Crescent are in the northern part of peninsular Southeast Asia, sharing a similar climate, common soil types, a seasonal monsoon, related subcultures and languages. One of the world’s 34 biodiversity hotspots, it is watered by four great rivers born of Himalayan glaciers: the Brahmaputra; the Irrawaddy and Salween; and the Mekong (called the Lancang in China).
The tea tree is a very old species which, some scientists believe, predates the most recent glacial advance; the “Ice Age” of the Pleistocene Epoch. As the theory goes, southern Yunnan was shielded by the Himalayas from the ravages of the ice sheet as it advanced slowly southward. Thus some early Pleistocene plant life was preserved and comes down to us. The tea tree has been with us for 35,000 years or more. What is the expression? “Thank God, I was not born before tea!”
It is said that wild tea gathered from old tea trees is richer in vitamins, minerals and catechins than domesticated tea from regular tea plants. Click To Tweet
Southern Yunnan, with six or ten (it depends who’s counting) Famous Tea Mountains, contains the world’s largest concentration of ancient wild tea trees. Three ancient tea forests, totaling 1,870 hectares, have been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This biotope contains over 1,100,000 ancient tea trees. Someone counted them. The oldest is 1,400 years of age. Just 10%, are 500-1000 years old. About a third are 300-500 years old.
While the tea tree is undoubtedly ancient, there is no historical record of its discovery, cultivation and use until a Chinese account of 1,000 BC. By that time, tea was being cultivated for use as a medicine, a restorative drink and a vegetable.
Although the ethnic Han Chinese often credit themselves with the discovery and development of tea, they were probably not the original custodians of the resource. This role should be credited to non-Chinese ethnic peoples, such as the Bulang (Blang) and Wa, who lived at the elevations where tea trees flourished. Also, the independent kingdom of Dali, situated in what is now southern Yunnan, was not absorbed into China until the middle of the 13th Century.
TO THE ADVANTAGES OF OLD TEA
Ancient wild tea has important advantages for the consumer. Most wild tea plants, especially the larger, older trees, are located in mountainous forests far from population centers. Their leaves are harvested by poor hill tribe farmers who cannot afford and probably have no use for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Soil and plant toxicity sometimes found in modern cultivated tea gardens does not exist in upland tea forests.
I have not seen conclusive, peer-reviewed studies, but it is said that wild tea gathered from old tea trees is richer in vitamins, minerals and catechins than domesticated tea from regular tea plants. This is because old tea trees have extensive root systems that take significantly more nourishment from nitrogen-fixing bacteria and naturally-composted organic matter in the soil and on the forest floor. Ideal soil pH and friability and the abundance of soil nutrients contribute to the health and vitality of the wild tea tree.
Old wild tea trees grow slowly in the shade of the multi-tiered forest. They struggle for access to sunlight and must conserve energy to survive the chill of evenings at high elevations. This encourages the development of distinct, complex flavors and the strong, long-lasting, sometimes sweet, aftertaste tea connoisseurs crave in the tea leaves.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners believe old or ancient wild tea is a source of qi (chi), a life force that flows throughout the human body. I’m not familiar enough with TCM to confirm or deny this; instead I am agnostic.
The wild tea tree is integral to the forest ecosystem. In an official report to the World Heritage Center by the National Commission of the People’s Republic of China for UNESCO on 29 January 2014:
Ancient tea trees grow extensively in secondary growth tropical monsoon evergreen broad-leafed forests in Southeast Asia. Such forests have the arbor layer at the top, the shrub layer in the middle and the vegetation layer at the bottom. Tall arbors such as mahogany and ficus….grow in the upper layer; the middle layer is dominated by ancient tea trees and decorated with lauraceae [flowering plants and spices of the giant laurel family], ericaceae [heather and edible wild berries] and other plants; and the lower layer is covered by gramineae [true grasses, such as wheat, corn, barley, and bamboo] and herbs such as ferns, galenicals [medicinal plants] and wild vegetables.
For natives of the highlands of SE Asia, old wild tea trees are a revered part of the ecosystem and a valuable non-timber forest resource critical to the preservation of precarious rural economies. Wild forest tea is an important and sustainable source of livelihood. Tea leaves are harvested for medicinal use, for making edible forms of tea, cha miang (mentioned above) and lahpet thoke (Burmese tea leaf salad) or converted into loose-leaf or compressed tea, marketed as Puer.
Although the ethnic Han Chinese often credit themselves with the discovery and development of tea, they were probably not the original custodians of the resource. Click To Tweet
Definitions and Distinctions
A number of terms have been coined to describe different sorts of old wild tea, but there is a good deal of redundancy and a noticeable lack of standardization and agreement among tea experts. We take a stab at it, nevertheless, because old tea reaches the market in many forms at a wide variety of price points. Knowing where tea leaves came from, the age of the trees and growing conditions assists in our assessment of these products.
Plantation Tea Bush
This is a “normal” modern hybrid tea plant grown in a monoculture setting on private land by a family or business entity. These plants are usually fertilized, irrigated, pruned and plucked several times a season. Plantation tea is processed with modern machinery.
Wild Tea Tree
Absent qualifiers, this is an inclusive term for large or small, wild, uncultivated tea trees in the forest or a forest clearing. It may be of high quality and delicious or of low quality and bitter. I have read several accounts where wild tea has caused “stomach distress.” Caveat emptor.
Old Cultivated Tea
This tall, multi-stem, rangy bush or tall tree (sometimes called “arbor tea”) is found growing wild high in the mountains. It may be 100-200 or more years old. It may be an isolated specimen or part of an old tea garden established many generations back, then abandoned or forgotten. Old tea trees may have 3 or 4 heavy, semi-vertical, branches radiating from a distinct, thickened trunk or lack a trunk altogether, having instead several thick vertical branches growing right out of the ground.
Ancient Tea Tree
This rare, valuable tea tree grows deep in the forest at altitudes of between 1,000 and 2,000 meters above sea level. Some are a thousand years old. They are usually found growing in publicly-owned forests.
Ancient tea trees can be tall and densely foliated at the crown, requiring 5-10 harvesters all day to pluck the leaves. Although the dominant wild tea variety is so-called “big-leaf Yunnan,” the leaves plucked for making high-quality tea products, such as raw Puer tea cake, will be 2-3 leaves and a bud. Silvery or golden wild tea buds are a rarity, so desirable in a compressed tea cake; they may be added to its top and bottom surfaces for appearance sake.
Old and ancient wild-crafted tea leaf is available as green, semi-fermented, or fully-fermented loose-leaf tea. It is commonly sourced from Yunnan, where old trees are plentiful and a tea industry is in place to process it. It is also available from Burma, Laos and Vietnam. Most high-quality old wild tea leaf is used to make “raw,” as opposed to “cooked,” Puer tea. High quality raw or green Puer compressed tea may be improved by aging.
The tea horizon is wide. Just when you think you have reached it and tried it all, another sort shows up. Old or ancient wild tea offers a unique sensory experience, stimulates the body, and contributes to health and well-being.
Have a wild tea party and a good old tea time.
Images by Frank Miller
Featured image is that of Dao Hill tribe wild tea plucker, Ha Giang.