Most true tea comes from one plant, the Camellia sinensis which is part of the evergreen family. The leaves are glossy green with serrated edges. When allowed to flower, the plant produces small white flower with bright yellow stamens.
Flowering is prevented during cultivation by harvesting the leaves and forcing the plant to constantly make more buds. There are two primary varieties of Camellia sinensis used for tea and a third which isn’t.
The Camellia sinensis plant strain is from China and is usually used to make green tea and white tea. This variety is also used to make some black teas and oolong teas.
This Chinese grown plant grows the best in cool temperatures on steep mountain slopes. Thriving at elevations up to 9,500 feet, the plant will typically grow to between 5 and 15 feet tall, if left unattended, and produces leaves up to two inches long. The short mountain growing seasons yield a smaller crop of more tender leaves that yield a sweeter, less astringent cup.
To allow easier plucking of the new growth, the Camellia sinensis is usually pruned to be waist high with a flat top. Because of the climate, the growing season is half of the year, at most. The plant will typically yield no more than five pluckings a year. The China plant will be dormant during the winters.
During the dormant winter the plant stores up its energy and nutrients which ensures the spring “flush” of new growth provides some of the finest teas on earth with the highest concentrations of desirable flavors and essential elements that provide the health benefits in tea.
Camellia sinensis assamica
The Camellia sinensis assamica strain is native to the Assam region in India. This strain is usually used to produce black tea, as well as pu erh tea in Yunnan province, China.
High humidity, generous rainfall, and warm temperatures allow this larger, more robust tea variety to thrive. The Assamica plant will grow to between 30 and 60 feet if left unattended and produce much larger leaves.
Under perfect conditions, the Assamica plant can be harvested every 8 to 12 days throughout the year. Because of the tremendous yields, it is the preferred crop in Northeast India, Sri Lanka and Africa. The unique climate in Sri Lanka allows the harvest from this hardy bush to continue year-round.
The Assamica leaf is ideal for producing strong, malty black teas, as well as other Chinese teas that require longer production, as in the case of oolong and pu-erh.
Camellia sinensis cambodiensis
The third variety is Camellia sinensis cambodiensis (Java Bush), which has been crossbred to achieve certain traits in other cultivars. The Java Bush isn’t typically used in commercial tea production.