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Mutant Brew: Clones, Cultivars, and Wild Teas

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In my last few articles, I’ve touched on more general aspects of tea, but now it’s time to get a little geeky, maybe even a little wild. Today I’ll talk about a type of tea that comes up in almost every category, but whose exact meaning sometimes escapes the common drinker: wild tea.

The tea plant cross-pollinates with other plants very easily. Grow tea plants near flowers, and the offspring of the tea plant will be a mix of the two, and therefore taste a little different. This can be a problem when you are a farmer trying to produce a single flavor regularly, and therefore need all of your plants to be the same.

To prevent having a mixed-up field of similar but slightly different plants, farmers will typically clone a single plant. The cloning process is actually easier than one may think, and has been around for centuries. One way to do it is to cut off a part of the plant, and plant that small piece directly in the ground. Another way is to graft the piece onto a plant or a root system that is already in the field.

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The benefit of the second method is that the new plant will be able to use the already-in-place root system, and will therefore be able to obtain a level of water and nutrients from the soil unreachable by younger roots. The benefit of the first method is that it allows many new plants to be planted at once. Farmers will often have nurseries where they are growing young clones that they will then plant into their fields when they are ready.

Cross-pollination isn’t always a bad thing, though. Farmers have also used the looseness of tea plants to create new cultivars with new flavors, or benefits not present in the original plant.

With a white tea maker — note that the tea trees in the background are a lot taller than most tea plants

Farmers and scientists sometimes deliberately cross-breed plants to create a new plant with characteristics they favor. In the tea world, such man-made hybrids are called cultivars.

Cultivars can be created to benefit farmers with such traits as resistance to pests, resistance to drought, and even optimized budding time. The majority of teas in the market of all levels are cultivars. Even most Long Jings are from a cultivar called Long Jing #43, which is very similar to the original Long Jing plant but has been slightly mutated for some of the farming benefits mentioned above. New cultivars can also be created to have a new flavor, and some of your favorite teas may actually be man-made. The famous Yan Cha Rou Gui is was actually created 40 years ago, and Anxi Tie Guan Yin was created just over 200 years ago. So are all teas these days clone and man-created cultivars? The answer is a little wild.

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You never really know what the the tea plant has pollinated with. It’s possible that a tea tree has pollinated with the tree next to it, thus creating a very similar — if not identical — plant with more or less the same flavor. But it’s also just as possible that a given tree has cross-pollinated with another nearby plant, and that the plant grown from the resulting seed will produce a significantly different flavor. This is what we call a wild tea.

Wild tea trees are most commonly found near growing fields, usually around the edges, or in abandoned fields where seeds have had time to fall to the ground and grow. What does their tea taste like?

A wild tea tree can have a variety of flavors, but it’s usually pretty similar to the mother tea. For example, compared to an non-wild Bai Mu Dan, a wild Bai Mu Dan might have a bolder, nuttier flavor, but be less sweet. Maybe it has more body, but less flavor. It is impossible to say exactly what the flavor of a wild tea will be, but I always describe it as lacking the same balanced flavor and structure as compared to a non-wild tea. Sometimes wild teas are better than the mother plant, sometimes the mother plant is better. The flavor, though, is usually so similar that it would take a side-by-side tasting or somebody telling you it was wild to know it was wild.

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Cultivars are found in all different sorts of plants, not just tea. The most well-known example is wine, but apple and potato growers also rely heavily on cultivars. A wild apple tree can produce apples with all sorts of different flavors — not all good, and sometimes quite bitter. The household potato is another cultivar, and is easily cloned, as many of us learned through middle school science experiments.

There are, of course, risks to cloning, as became apparent in Ireland in the 1800s. For many political reasons, the Irish in the 1800s ate pretty much only potatoes, and these potatoes were all clones. When a fungus hit the potatoes, all of these clones were killed. In a natural, wild potato field, some potatoes would die, while others would be able to fight off the fungal invasion — but since all of the potatoes in Ireland at the time were clones, they were all susceptible in the same way, which eventually led to the Irish potato famine.

The same risk runs for tea, and all other clones. Even with this risk, though, cloning and mutating tea tree varieties have been of great benefit to farmers, and have created some of your favorite teas.

Cover image: A nursery in Taiping with baby hou kui plants (photo by the author)

Dylan Conroy
    Born and raised in New York City, now living in China, everything Dylan does relates to tea. He always carries two gaiwans and is quick to give people free tea if they show even the slightly interest. His ultimate goal is to make tea as widely appreciated and understood as wine is in the West. He has his own blog, www.thesweetestdew.com, which is dedicated solely to tea education.