What do Earl Grey, white peony, and matcha teas have in common? They all come from the same plant: Camellia sinensis, AKA the Tea Plant.
All teas other than rooibos, which is made from the leaves of a shrub called Aspalathus linearis, the caffeinated hollies, and herbal tea, which is made from a combination of herbs, dried fruit, or flowers, come from the Camellia sinensis plant.
There are two types of this plant, including Camellia sinensis var. assamica, which is native to the Assam province in India, and the Camellia sinensis var. sinensis plant, which is native to China but is now grown in over 45 countries.
This well-loved plant has stood the test of time and been a part of many major historical events, but there’s still more to it than meets the eye. Let’s learn together about the wonderful world of Camellia sinensis.
What Is Camellia Sinensis?
Camellia sinensis is a small tree or bush that keeps its green leaves year-round with branches starting only about 20 to 30 cm off the ground. While its small white or pink flowers are beautiful to look at, the plant is mainly grown for its young leaves.
The plant will typically will continue to grow until temperatures dip below 10 degrees Celsius or 50 degrees Fahrenheit, which creates three harvesting periods: in the spring, in the summer, and in the fall.
The youngest leaves go through a variety of processes to become black, oolong, green, Pu-erh, and white tea, with only the finest new growths going on to become matcha. All types of true teas, can be made from the Camellia sinensis plant but they differ in the type of tea that they produce due to the way that they are processed and the amount of oxidation that they receive.
Thanks to the tea production industry and individual tea gardens, we now have around 1,500 cultivars (or varieties) of the tea plant. However, these varieties can all be traced back to one of three ancestors, which tells us that humans have managed to domesticate tea plants three separate times. The two main ancestral varieties are var. Sinensis and var. Assamica, and these are still grown and cultivated today.
Camellia Sinensis var. Sinensis
Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, found in Taiwan, Japan, and Darjeeling, as well as China, is perhaps most commonly referred to as the tea plant, and has smaller leaves than the Camellia sinensis var. assamica variety, meaning that it creates a more delicate tasting tea.
Camellia sinensis var. sinensis does well in cooler temperatures and at higher elevations, meaning that those plants that are grown at higher elevations tend to have more concentrated flavors, as the cooler temperature slows growth, allowing more depth of flavor.
This particular variety of Camellia Sinensis is native to China, which means it is slightly more cold-hardy than its Indian counterpart. The leaves are also notably smaller, and it doesn’t grow quite as tall or as wide as var. Assamica.
Although the tea plant is native to China, it can grow in many other climates, usually in mountainous territories, and it can also be grown in controlled environments. There are many large tea farms in South Carolina, Alabama, Hawaii, Washington, and Oregon, as well as smaller tea gardens that are hand-harvested throughout the United States.
Read on for everything you need to know about Chinese tea.
The tea plant was actually discovered by accident in around 2737 B.C.E. when, as legend goes, an emperor was boiling water in his garden, and a leaf from the Camellia sinensis plant fell into his pot. Within China, tea was originally used medicinally and then within trade before blossoming into the popular beverage that we know today.Buddhist monks were the first to drink tea from the Camellia plant because its caffeine helped them meditate. However, the drink soon spread through China and the world at large.
Today, tea is almost synonymous with the United Kingdom. The British became tea fanatics and desired to steal the closely guarded cultivation secrets of Chinese tea. To steal this secret, the British-owned East India Tea Company sent Scottish botanist Robert Fortune to China on a covert mission.
Fortune managed to steal over 30,000 Tea Plant specimens, ranging from seeds to propagations to juvenile plants. He also managed to steal the Chinese tea-making and oxidation techniques. Because of Fortune’s work, Tea Plants are now grown all over the world!
Tea in China is mostly grown by small farms or individual farmers, so these teas are often rich and carry a wide variety of flavors. China has four main growing regions for Camellia Sinensis:
- The Xinan region
- The Huanan region
- The Jiangnan region
- The Jiangbei region
The Xinan tea-growing region encompasses the Yunnan valley and parts of Tibet, and it’s the original home of Camellia sinensis. Due to this region’s unique soil structure, tea plants grown in Xinan are often used for black teas and green teas.
In fact, Yunnan tea from this region is known for its sweet and smoky flavors. This region also produces Pu-erh tea, which is a type of fermented black tea.
The Huanan growing region encompasses southern China, including the Fujian and Hainan provinces. The weather is warmer in these provinces, which allows for a longer growing season.
The soil in this region is red and rich, which is why Huanan tea is most often highly oxidized. This region is also home to one of the most revered Chinese oolongs, which can retail at over $10,000 a pot!
The Jiangnan growing region includes the Hunan and Jiangxi provinces and produces about two-thirds of all Chinese teas. Tea Plants in this region create black, green, and oolong teas. If you want a taste of some of this rich tea, look no further than Sipping Streams Tea Company Dragon Well Green Tea. Sourced from Hangzhou West Lake, this tea is both flavorful and immensely popular.
Meanwhile, the Jiangbei region is the northernmost growing region in China. The air is so cold that tea plants slow their growth and their leaves become much smaller. This leads to a much sweeter and more delicate tea, ideal for small leaf teas such as green and white teas.
Camellia Sinensis var. Assamica
The Indian variety of C. sinensis is larger and more climate-dependent than Chinese Camellia. Regardless, this variety of tea plant still produces some of the most popular tea in the world. Here is everything you need to know about var. Assamica.
Around the same time, Robert Fortune was committing Chinese tea tree espionage, Robert Bruce was discovering the Indian tea variety. Faced with monopoly bans from the British government, the East India Tea Company decided to expand its operations and grow its own tea.
The company acquired land in India, where Bruce quickly realized that the Assam region was home to a separate variety of tea plant. The company immediately established tea plantations where the evergreen shrub was mined for tea leaves.
Since Chinese tea exports were so expensive, Indian tea grew in popularity until it dominated the market. Today, India is the second-largest producer of tea, producing approximately 1,257.52 million kilograms of tea per year — although about 70% of this tea is consumed by people in India itself.
Whereas Chinese tea is mostly produced by small farms, Indian tea is largely mass-produced, which means that the teas are fairly uniform in each region. While India has started producing multiple types of tea, black tea is the main product.
There are three main tea-growing regions in India:
- The Assam region
- The Darjeeling region
- The Nilgiri region
The Assam region is known for producing strong cups of black tea. In fact, Assam black tea is the primary ingredient of many breakfast teas, including Irish Breakfast. This region is the original home of var. Assamica, and the rich soil translates well into a full-bodied cuppa.
Try it for yourself with Coalition Tea Assam Black 101, a single-origin tea that also saves the elephants.
The Darjeeling growing region lies in the Himalayan foothills at a whopping 600 to 2,000 meters in altitude. Because of this elevation, Darjeeling tea is said to have the most delicate flavor of any black tea. In fact, those who drink Darjeeling black tea often skip the milk and sugar in favor of the unique flowery undertones.
Finally, the Nilgiri growing region is in the Nilgiri, or the Blue Mountains, where rainfall each year lies between 60 and 90 inches. The rainfall and high elevations lead to a highly unique and crisp black tea flavor with floral nights and a beautiful golden liquor.
How To Grow Camellia Sinensis
Because only the top leaves of the Camellia sinesis plant are harvested, it is often pruned into a fan shape for easy picking, as it is typically harvested by hand, although some teas are now harvested mechanically. Most tea is harvested during the warmer months of the year when the plant is flourishing, meaning that a lot of preparation goes into creating the cup of tea that you hold in your hands today.
Once harvested, the tea leaves then need to be dried and processed, leading to the different types of tea that you know and love:
- The leaves that will become green tea are steamed or pan-fired before they start to oxidize.
- Black tea leaves are allowed to oxidize before heat is applied, creating depth of color.
- Pu-erh tea is unique because of the fermentation process the leaves undergo.
- Oolong is somewhat of a cross between green and black tea as its leaves are semi-oxidized.
- White tea undergoes the least processing and is typically just dried and withered. From this one little plant, many different teas can be created.
Unlike other plants in its family, Camellia sinensis is able to tolerate heat and drought remarkably well. Although it can tolerate shade and full sun, the tea plant prefers to be in partial sun.
These characteristics mean that Camellia sinensis grows best in warmer and drier climates, although one variety can handle cooler temperatures. This plant also prefers acidic soil or mulch, and it can grow in the United States up to growing zone six. Growing tea is a science!
When plants are domesticated, growers often selectively breed them for certain traits. Over time, as different varieties develop due to this selection, our domesticated plants can be unrecognizable to their wild ancestors.
Many tea favorites all stem from the same plant: Camellia sinensis. Native to China and India, Camellia sinensis has a deeply rooted history and few distinct growing regions that produce different tea flavors.
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* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
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