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The Tea Plantation
The use of tea leaves in an infusion was widespread long before it made its way to the West and long before it became the focus of scientific study, taking on significant political and economical importance for the countries involved in its trade. Prescribed by apothecaries and used in temples during sessions of meditation, it helped to inspire artists, poets, potters, and travelled with the caravans to the remotest regions of Asia.
The tea bush, or Camellia sinensis, belongs to the genus Camellia family and is divided into three principal varieties: Camellia sinensis var. assamica, C. sinensis var. sinensis and C. sinensis var. cambodiensis.
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A tea plantation looks like a huge forest made up of small trees that are rarely more than 5 ft / 1.5m high. Their thick, gnarled trunks are an indication that they are much older than their small size would suggest. In their natural state, tea plants can reach a height of 16 to 22 yd / 15 to 20m. If they are to be cultivated, they are kept at a height of about 4 ft/ 1.20m by regular pruning in order to form what is known as the "plucking table", which facilitates hand plucking and encourages bud growth.
The Tea Tree
Hand-pruned and shaped for some 50 years, tea plants become real dwarf trees and form unusual looking plantations, a mixture of massive green covers and miniature forests.
The tea plant belongs to the Camelia family. There are two main varieties of the camelia sinensis or thea sinensis: the Chinese variety, known as sinensis, with small olive green leaves, and the Assam variety, known as assamica, which has large, pale, plump leaves. Other varieties have now appeared as a result of hybridization, grafting, propagation from cuttings, etc., with many hybrids known as jats or clonals.
The cultivated tea plant is a bush with evergreen leaves which have a shiny upper surface and a paler matt underside. The young leaves and buds are covered with a light, silvery down, hence their name "Pekoe" after the Chinese word Pak-ho, which means "fine hair" or "down".
Tea trees grow in regions with a hot, humid climate and regular rainfall throughout the year. They grow between the 42nd degree of latitude in the northern hemisphere and the 31st degree in the south.
The main growing countries are:
The optimal average temperature is between 64°F and 68°F / 18°C and 20°C with little day-to-day variation. Climate has an effect on both the volume and the quality of the harvest. An overly humid climate will yield a lower quality tea, while a dry season can often bring higher-quality harvests. Altitude also improves quality but results in a smaller yield. In tropical regions, the tea plant can be cultivated at altitudes ranging from sea level to 8,200 ft / 2,500m.
Sunlight is important as it is needed for the formation of the essential oils that give the liquor its aroma. Light should preferably be filtered, which is why large trees are almost always planted in tea plantations. In addition to regulating the soil ecology, they also filter the sun’s rays.
The soil should be permeable, loose and deep since the tea plant's roots can push down to a depth of up to 20 ft / 6m. The topsoil should be at least 5 ft / 1.5m deep. The best areas have young, volcanic soil that is very permeable and rich in humus, neither undersaturated nor too clayey. Tea is always grown on sloping ground, allowing for natural drainage since, unlike rice plants, tea plants cannot survive in stagnant water. This drawback is also a plus: the highly-resilient tea plant can be grown on extreme gradients and is perfectly suited to even the steepest mountainous terrain.
Propagation by cutting remains the method most commonly used today. Cuttings are taken from adult tea plants that have been screened to establish certain criteria. The plants selected are grown on a mini-plantation, their crops harvested, made into tea, and then tested.
Cuttings are taken from various tea bushes that have been carefully selected for their properties as top quality parent material. These are then planted in nursery garden well away from all other sources of tea pollen. Pollination is left to the wind and insects are the young plants are left to grow freely. Seeds are allowed to fall to the ground during the fruiting period (October to January) and are collected daily.
Initially the young plants are well-shaded from the wind, bad weather, and direct sunlight, but the shade is then progressively reduced to harden them off before their final transplantation at the end of 18 months.
The cuttings planted are from selected cultivars and are placed in the same kind of soil as is used for seed propagation. A cutting is only ready to be planted out when its root system has developed sufficiently.
The optimum period for transplanting young tea bushes varies from region to region. Everything depends on the climatic conditions, which mush give the young plants time to acclimatize and form a good root system and abundant foliage.
The young plant is ready to be transferred to the plantation as soon as it has developed a well –branched root system and some leaves.
Growing tea used to be done from seeds that were re-planted. Nowadays reproduction of tea plants is basically accomplished by taking cuttings from selected plants.
The cuttings are taken from the chosen plants and then replanted onto nursery beds where they will remain for 12 to 18 months. As soon as they turn into young plants, they are replanted in the main plantation, being spaced out in such a way that the fully grown bushes will cover the entire area when they reach maturity.
The plant is left for 4 years before any leaves can be plucked. Constant pruning and shaping will form its required height of 1.20m, hence creating the plucking table and giving a good framework to the bush. It will not reach full growth until the fifth year when it will begin to produce. It will still be pruned at varying intervals - on average every two years - in order to keep it at a good height for plucking.
A mature tea plant does not usually live for more than 40 or 50 years. Nonetheless some varieties can live up to 100 years.
At the end of the fifth year, the tea plant is ready to be harvested. This operation, which consists of a light, repeated, pruning of the young shoots, is carried out in a 7 to 15 days cycle, depending on the growth, the climate and the amount of tea to be plucked.
Plucking seasons in Asia:
• China: February to November,
• Northern India: February to November,
• Southern India: all year round,
• Indonesia: all year round,
• Japan: 4 times a year, from May to October,
• Sri Lanka: all year round except in high altitude,
• Taiwan: mainly in Spring, summer and autumn.
A small bud forms at the end of each stem and quickly becomes a young shoot. This end leaf is usually curled and forms the bud. Other leaves are found on the stem and their number below the bud will determine the quality of the plucking: the more are removed, the lesser quality plucking.
There are three types of plucking:
The leaves are never plucked separately: the part of the stem that unites the young shoot and the leaves is always plucked as a whole.
In order to obtain some much sought-after teas, the 4th and 5th leaves, also called Souchong, are picked. These are usually to be found in smoked Chinese teas.
After a certain period of time the tea plant will have stems with no young shoots. This marks the resting period. The end bud is formed of the "deaf" leaf which is then removed in order to allow the stems to recover.
Plucking is still done, in the majority of cases, by hand. Mechanization of tea plucking is still very rare; with some exceptions however:
• in Japan scissors are used.
• also in Japan, and in Georgia, mechanized clippers are used to straddle the rows and pluck an area with a width of 1.5m. This method presupposes a flat terrain and a large harvest, except in Japan where mechanization is very advanced but also very expensive.
• in Argentina, tractors are used.