Tea Plant and Harvesting

Tea plant variety  and harvesting season

Camellia sinensis – the tea plant that give us tea

You know that tea is made from the tender leaves and buds of the tea plant. The botanical name of this evergreen shrub is Camellia sinensis aka Thea sinensis. It is from the family Theaceae and of genus Camellia which means tea flower. The tree has shiny dark green leaves along with small white blossoms. The tropical and subtropical climates are favorable for tea plantation. However it needs a good rainfall which should not be less than 1280 mm in a year.

pu'erh tea from chinese variety of tea plantDifferent species of tea plant

The plant has two main species. In botanical terminology they are known as

  • Camellia sinensis var. sinensis and
  • Camellia sinensis var. assamica.

These names indicates their respective native origins. You will find the first of the two, mostly in the Southern Chinese mainland. It is more suitable for the cool climate of the high mountainous regions of central China, Japan and also to Taiwan.

Thea assamica variety, the second variety is native to the tropical humid climatic regions of the northeast India especially Assam. This variety of tea plant you may find in Myanmar and Thailand too. This assamica variety of tea plant is the mother of most of the tea brands in the world. These includes not only your favorite Assam tea brand, but also other well-known brands familiar to you like Darjeeling, Ceylon or Kenya tea brands.

Some facts on the different tea plant species tea plant - budding leaves

  1. The larger leaves of the Assamica plant have distinctively different flavors from those of the Chinese tea. Hence it is most suitable for producing a full bodied, malty, strong black tea.
  2. As many as 45 countries all over the world now have tea plantations. They are mostly in the vicinity of the equator blessed with a favorable tropical climate. Almost all of them grow some variety of the assamica tea species.
  3. In some forests in Assam Burma region, some wild tea plants can be traced. The same may be the remains of some past plantations.
  4. Assamica strain of the plant leaf is used more for teas like the black, oolong and pu’erh. These teas  need longer time for production.
  5. The Chinese strain of tea with smaller leaves is more suitable for production of green and white teas. Yet, black tea is also produced with this variety, though in small quantity.
  6. This tea plant variety is suitable for low humidity and cold regions. They can withstand the onslaught of chilling winter very easily.

Tea Harvesting Season or Flush:

image of a tea plantThe harvesting of tea is the plucking of tea leaves mostly with one bud and two or three tender leaves. It starts with emergence of new tea shoots or flush. Tea flush refers to the tea growing seasons that fall within a certain time periods. In tropical climate with plenty of rainfall, the plants can have more than one season or flush. In the tea growing cold regions, the tea flush is mostly seen in the summer season. While in the winter, the plants pass through a dormant period. The major tea growing areas in the world have a harvesting period as stated below.

1. Indian Subcontinent Tea Harvest:

It has a geographically diverse tea growing area that includes:

A.  Darjeeling and Nepal:

Here the tea has three major flushes.

  • First or spring flush from mid-March to May and the teas are clear, light and aromatic.
  • Second or summer flush from June to mid-Augustand the teas come with dark color and strong flavor.
  • Third or autumn flush from October to November and the teas come with full body, coppery color and lighter flavor. This product commands the least market price compared to the first two.

In between the three major flushes, two minor flushes are also noticed in Darjeeling. The first minor flush comes in between the first and second flushes and runs for a short period of hardly two weeks.

The second minor flush comes between the second and third flushes in the month of September.

You shall find it amazing that the same tea plant brings in different flavors and tastes in different flushes. This change can even impact the price of the tea. Generally the first flush teas have a lively flavor characterized with a bright liquor. The first flush teas command a premium price for the better quality. As the production is less during this period, the demand supply gap too contributes to a price rise.

B.  Assam:

Assam is the single biggest tea producing region in the world. Here the planters harvest the tea leaves from March to Mid-November. Though there are four flushes or seasons for Assam tea, you will get the better quality tea on the first two flushes. The first flush or the spring flush starts in late March. The second flush starting from end of May to June. This season produces the best quality tea leaves with gold tips, the raw material for the prized “tippy tea”.

The teas produced during the second flush are maltier, sweeter and more full-bodied compared to any other tea produced during the year. The Monsoon flush arrives on the back of monsoon rains. It begins immediately after the second flush and continues up to the end of September. As a result of abundant monsoon rains, we get a full bodied tea along with very intense and dark fusion. Autumn flush, begins in October and lasts until the middle of November. The autumn tea is characterized with amber liquor and musky flavors, tangy aromas.

image of leaves of tea plant

C.  South India and Sri Lanka:

The tea growing places in South India like the Nilgiri, Kerala, Karnataka and Sri Lanka are closer to the equator. Hence you won’t see any winter season here. As a result, tea plants are harvested throughout the year. This pattern holds good for the tea growing countries of African continent. This includes Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Malawi, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Burundi. The quantum of tea produced in these hot tropical regions increases during the rainy season. a cup of tea - product of a tea plant

2. China & Taiwan Tea Harvest:

After the winter dormancy period is over, spring season starts. Thus the harvesting season starts in China and Taiwan from April up to late November. This full period can be divided into three seasons. They are Spring, Summer and Fall.

Spring Harvest

There are four distinct plucking periods in the spring harvest. The first period which starts  from February ends on 5th April is known as ‘clear bright’ period. The second period known as ‘before the rain starts’ for two weeks up to 20th April. The third phase known as ‘grain rain’ is from April 20th to May 6th. Last phase in spring harvest called ‘late spring’ or ‘start of summer’ is from May 6th to May 21st. The spring harvest produces most of the Chinese premium teas.

Summer Harvest

The produce of summer harvest is not very special. Hence premium tag is missing from the tea produced during this season. Obviously, it is the most abundant season for standard black, green and oolong teas.

Fall Harvest

Along with fall season comes cool weather. That is why, the teas produced in China during this season are mostly oolongs and pu’erh teas. tea plant - chinese boy presents tea to father on new year festival

More about the Tea Plants:

The Camellia sinensis China variety tea plant has an economic life span of one hundred year. They are very much tough and hence capable of withstanding cold-icy winters. It is a small-leafed bush with multiple stems. The plant can grow up to a maximum height of nine feet. The broad leaf Assam variety tea plant on the other hand can grow up to a massive 60 feet height if allowed to grow undisturbed. However in plantation, it is never allowed to achieve that height. Regular pruning process keeps  it within waist height thus makes plant management and plucking easy. The single stem Assam variety of tea has an economic life of around forty years.

Tea plant prefers a moist growing location with decent sunlight. Yet, the plants can tolerate temperature as low as minus 17°C. In a low temperature or high elevation area, the growth of the plants are a bit slow resulting in less production. However the tea produced here command premium price due to its better quality and special flavor.  The cloned tea plants can be grown commercially in a wide variety of climate and soil conditions. This may range from the equator to a latitude as high as 50 degree north as Cornwall, UK. Or may range from near sea level elevation in Assam up to 2,400 meters of elevation in Kolukkumalai, Kerala.

Tea Tree and Tea Oil:

You may have heard about the tea oil. Yet most of the time you may wonder if it is extracted from the tea trees i.e. the Camellia sinensis plants or not. The answer of the question is a simple no. However the often heard term tea tree or ti-tree is used in a broad sense. It indicates quite a few numbers of different and wide variety of plants. These are in no way related to the plant that produce tea.

tea tree oil is not aproduct of tea plant Of course the group includes Camellia sinensis – the plant that produce tea. But it also includes numerous other plants of Melaleuca and Leptospermum species in the family Myrtaceae and Kunzeaericoides. It includes white tea-tree, a tree or shrub of Australia and New Zealand. These plants are used for commercial production of tea tree oil or melaleuca oil. This oil is used as a topical antibacterial for its medicinal characteristics. However they are in no way related to the tea beverage. Tea tree oil can be applied topically for treatment of fungal infections of various types. This includes lice, ringworm, acne, toothache and also as antiseptic for cuts, burns, insect bite and so on.