The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, has several varieties, hybrids and cultivars that contribute to the diverse world of tea. The six categories of tea – white tea, green tea, black tea, yellow tea, oolong tea, and dark tea (pu-erh), all come from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, but variations in processing, growing conditions and specific cultivars contribute to the distinctive characteristics of each type.
Main varieties, hybrids and cultivars of the tea plant
Camellia sinensis var. sinensis
This is the type of tea plant originally found in China. It is typically used to make green and white tea and is known for its smaller leaves.
Camellia sinensis var. assamica
Commonly known as the Assam tea plant variety, this type of plant was originally found in Assam in India. It has larger, more robust leaves and is often used to make black tea.
When tea plants are left to grow wild, there is the potential for natural cross-pollination to occur, leading to the development of natural hybrids. While such plants have a combination of traits from the parent plants, such hybrids have unique characteristics that make them interesting from a genetic, horticultural and flavour profile perspective. An interesting example of this is Vietnamese Fairy White Tea, which is derived from tea plants that have been allowed to grow wild for several generations.
In addition, various hybrids have been developed by crossing different varieties of Camellia sinensis. For example, Camellia sinensis var. cambodiensis is a natural hybrid created by crossing sinensis and assamica.
Within each species there are numerous cultivars that have been developed by various national or regional tea associations to improve specific characteristics such as flavour, aroma and resistance to pests.
Each country and sometimes each tea-producing region has its own unique set of cultivars of the tea plant, which contribute to the distinctive flavours and character of tea. For example:
China has a long and rich heritage of tea cultivars. Some well-known Chinese tea cultivars include:
- Long Jing: This famous green tea cultivar from Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province in eastern China is known for its flat, slender leaves and delicate flavour.
- Ti Guan Yin: This popular oolong tea cultivar, especially associated with Anxi in Fujian Province, known for its floral and fruity notes.
- Da Hong Pao: This legendary “rock” oolong tea from the Wuyi Mountains is known for its bold, rich flavour.
Taiwan, renowned for its high-quality oolong teas, has developed and recognized several cultivars over the years. Some notable ones include:
- Jin Xuan: Commonly known as “Milk Oolong,” this cultivar is prized for its creamy texture and buttery, floral notes.
- Qing Xin: Commonly used in the production of gao shan (high-mountain) oolongs, this cultivar of the tea plant is highly esteemed for its intricate flavours and aromatic profiles, contributing to the unique and sophisticated qualities of highly prized high grown oolong teas.
- Qing Xin Da Mao: This cultivar is one of the most common and favoured choices for producing Oriental Beauty tea due to its ability to develop the unique flavours and aromatic qualities associated with this type of oolong.
Many Indian tea gardens cultivate clonal varieties, which are selected for specific traits like high yield and desirable flavour profiles. Darjeeling in particular is often celebrated for its unique terroir, and specific clonal plants contribute to the diversity of flavours found in Darjeeling teas.
While tea gardens in Darjeeling cultivate various clonal varieties to create teas with different flavour profiles, the AV2 (Ambari Vegetative) clonal tea plant is particularly prized for its floral aroma and muscatel flavour, making it a sought-after choice among tea enthusiasts.
A fine example of clonal plants being used to their optimum is Darjeeling First Flush Thurbo Moonlight DJ10 2022. This is an exceptional clonal tea, blending the finest attributes of AV2, P312, and SY3210 cultivars. In essence, these cultivars signify plants propagated from carefully selected cuttings, typically a single leaf, chosen for their distinctive flavor profiles and unique characteristics.
The P312 clone, originating from the Phoobsering garden, and the SY3210 cultivars are also prized for their rich flavour, aromatic scents, and delightful floral notes. This tea represents a harmonious blend of these renowned cultivars, resulting in a remarkable infusion that captures the essence of Darjeeling’s distinguished tea heritage.
The future of the tea plant
The exact number of tea varieties, hybrids and cultivars is vast, and ongoing research and development continues to introduce new varieties of the tea plant. As with wine, tea producers are constantly experimenting with different varieties or cultivars. In the tea industry, this might involve growing specific tea plant varieties to see how they adapt to different regions or altitudes, or planting different varieties in regions where you would not normally expect them to grow. For more details on the surprising number of non-tropical or sub-tropical regions where tea is now grown, see Jane Pettigrew’s fantastic book ‘The World of Tea’.