Chinese tea plants are usually divided into two classes, and
distinguished a Thea Bohea and Thea Viridis, the former being most
suitable for black teas, and the latter for green teas; and black and
green teas have been indiscriminately made from the leaves of either.
A tea shrub of Chinese origin now before us, growing among a host of
common American plants, displays no special characteristics which would
attract attention to itself. It resembles an orange plant. Its
developed leaves are smooth on the surface, leathery in texture, dark
green in color, with edges finely serrated from point almost to stalk.
They are without odor, and when chewed in the mouth, have a mild and
not unpleasant astringency, but no other perceptible flavor. A leaf of
any familiar domestic plant, such as the lilac, the plantain, or the
apple, has a stronger individuality to the sense of taste, than this
green leaf of the tea plant.
How was the hidden mystery of its incalculable value to mankind
revealed? What premonition guided the Chinese discoverer to the
preparatory treatment and delicately graduated firing process which
develops tea's precious flavors? And does not this unsolved question
suggest the possible existence of other plants, growing, perhaps, at
our very doorsteps, possessing rare and unrecognized virtues?
In form, tea leaves have been compared by writers to leaves of the
privet, the plum, the ash, the willow, but close observers know that
not only do leaves of the species just mentioned represent different
types, but that important variations in form occur in leaves of the
same species, and in leaves growing on a single tree or plant. The tea
plant is subject to the same vagaries, and any description by
comparison will be misleading.
All varieties of the tea plant bear a pure white flower, averaging, say
1 1/4 inches in diameter, and resembling very
closely our single white wild rose blossom.
Its bunch of bright yellow stamens is so bushy and showy in some
varieties that careless travelers have been led to report the flower as
yellow in color, which is never the case.
In some Chinese plants, and in those of India, tea blossoms are very
fragrant, and they have been used for scenting tea leaves in India, if
not in China, as other flowers are used by the Chinese. In India a
perfume has been distilled from tea blossoms; and a valuable oil is
expressed from the very oily seeds. The long tap root of the tea plant
renders it difficult to transplant.
In China, tea is commonly cultivated in small patches or fields, large
tea fields being the exception. The nature of Chinese inheritance laws
and customs which tend to continual subdivision of land, may be one of
the causes of this state of affairs. The least area of spare ground is
frequently utilized by the small farmer or the cottager for the
cultivation of a dozen or more tea shrubs, from which they procure tea
for their own use, or realize a small sum by sales of the green leaves
to tea traders. Many a rocky hillside or mountain slope, otherwise
waste ground, is terraced so as to detain the rains and meagre soil
within its inwardly inclined banks and trenches, and made to yield a
valuable crop of tea. Indeed, some of the finest flavored Chinese tea,
of fabulous value where they are produced, are grown in seemingly
inaccessible retreats among precipitous mountains.