A few weeks ago, the news came out that researchers at the University Kunming, Yunnan, China had unlocked the tea genome. This has drawn praise and also fear at the same time. The fear is in the thought of “transgenic” tea or as I know it as GE (Genetically Enhanced) tea. It did not take long for most people to calm down and realize that in the United States and in Europe, most people avoid transgenic crops and that most companies in the United States do print on their boxes if the product contains “GMO” products.
I hate that term and I hate how it is improperly used to refer to GE products, because if the offspring of something living is not a carbon copy and genetically identical to the parent, then it is technically a “GMO,” genetically modified organism. I am technically a GMO of my parents. Since we have that out of the way, we can actually continue with the rest of the blog.
I was first brought to the attention of the tea genome breakthrough by my friend Shana Zhang of Wild Qi Tea posting it in the international tea talk page. For those of you who do not know, there is a rather fairly large group of people from around the world that post and discuss topics on camellia tea, tea culture, and other bits of information. It is a great platform, very polite even if there is a difference in opinion, but it most importantly is a very good place to gain understanding and perspective. Those who do partake in the conversation do so for what appears mostly to the enlightenment of themselves and enrichment of others.
I have numerous copies of older text books talking about camellia teas. So texts referred to this rare almost magical camellia tea only produced deep within the country, while other texts (depending on when the book was published) talk about teas from China as being inferior to Assam and Darjeeling teas. Below is an excerpt from “Tea, Its History and Mystery” written by Joseph M. Walsh and published in 1892. It talks about specifically the various regions within China and how without confirmation from botanist it may occur wild elsewhere as well.
Within this book, Walsh gives a botanical break down of three species of tea known at the at time, Thea viridis, Thea bohea, and Thea assamica. It is around this time that Robert Fortune account of how tea can be made from the same plant green and black. Walsh even mentions it before the break down of the three species. (Fortune’s account more than likely played a role in the changing of the Genus from Thea to Camellia, along with other arguments by botanist and scientist alike, because around 1890-1894 Thea genus is changed to Camellia)
Walsh also mentions in this text about how the current understanding is that tea came from Korea. Still Walsh does venture on to say two things worth noting, he mentions a new species of tea growing wildly in the “Hindostan” region next to Yunnan. (Sounds like Camellia taliensis to me, yet Camellia taliensis was not an accepted name until 1914). The other thing he said worth noting, is his mentioning that other writers claim that all tea came from Yunnan. (It appears as more work is done and several other works that have been done, that this is actually the case). These statements appear on page 31 of his book.
So I had to be unbias and do some research for myself. What were these magical teas from deep within China?
According to modern taxonomic nomenclature, camellia tea comes from two plants, Camellia sinensis var sinensis and Camellia sinensis var assamica. I was taught about a third type, “Cambod” unfortunately, science doesn’t accept that. (Maybe it will one day, maybe it won’t and declare it to be a species, I don’t know, because I haven’t followed up on it.)
We know it was George Forrest, Scottish botanist, who is credited with naming Camellia taliensis, yet it was not formally recognized until 1914, when his specimen documentation was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Botanical Garden of Edinburgh. The proceedings have three of his specimens listed that he collected in the wild of Yunnan, below are the specimen listings.
Forrest’s specimens were taken back to the United Kingdom and published by a different individual, so it is unclear if Forrest or the individual choose to use the genus Thea. What is known is that George Forrest traveled to Yunnan in the early 1900’s and never left. He is buried in Yunnan. He lived over a decade there and was the first English speaking botanist to study plant and animal flora.
There is misconception that Camellia sinensis and assamica are the only species of camellia that contains caffeine, which we know that Japanese researcher Nagota (hope I spelled that right) disproved in the 1980’s. We know that Camellia taliensis has caffiene and we also know that plant is native to areas outside of Yunnan as well.
Was Camellia taliensis the tea those books talked about? It must be something special, because the United States government spent the resources to include it in it’s project at Pinehurst tea experiment at Summerville, SC, circa 1892.
I looked up the ICUN Redlist on Camellia taliensis and found a small wealth of information about the species. Then I presented some of that information in a post in International Tea Talk to see what feed back I would get. The posting was around two publications by Chinese scholars.
- C. taliensis fetches 10 to 100 times more than other teas
- A study done in Yunnan with Camellia sinensis var sinensis, var assamica, and taliensis.
Now before I go any further, you must understand that Yunnan is probably one of the most culturally diverse regions in China and people have migrated in and around for centuries. Various species could of moved into or out of the region, the only way we can try to figure this out is by some deep literature research and also by doing field exploration and other experiments analyzing genetic populations.
From an outside looking in point of view, I became confused, I was more like curious, because here I have conflicting information. I am starting to get this interesting feel I had about another leaf infused beverage, that I have written about in the past and how western documentation kinda followed a similar route as it tried to bring forth the proper understanding to the world at large.
Shana Zhang provided me with three pieces of interesting evidence, not to contradict what I am saying here, but it provides the insight I am looking for.
#1 She has told me that Puer (Puerh) tea, tea in general, made from Camellia taliensis has a sweet aroma different from sinensis and assamica.
#2 She provided Chinese text that says that Puerh tea has been made by multiple species of Camellia native to Yunnan outside of sinensis, assamica, and taliensis.
#3 She properly corrected the translation of Tali to Dali, hence the error in naming of the species taliensis, this correction is based on the Chinese characters used to spell it. This is a somewhat a common mistake on western’s part in the past to interpret and develop a English translation. While Latin is the language of taxonomic nomenclature, I believe errors have been made by trying to adopt a English friendly version of a translation versus the literal translation.
For example, Camellia sasanqua is the english-latinized version of Sazanka (which is the romanji translation from Japanese). Sazanka can be used and enunciated quite easily into Latin or English.
Now before going any further, I must address somethings, that is very important and important to understanding Puer tea. First I must address how Puer tea has one additional process in the manufacturing, it goes through fermentation post drying. To put it in simpler terms, it is a black tea that gets fermented in piles after drying and then pressed into different shapes. Second the Chinese government has restricted the branding of Puer tea to products only produced in the Yunnan providence. The government wrote a guideline that even though sinensis, assamica, and taliensis can be made into Puer tea, it must be produced in Yunnan to be called Puer(h). Third at no point am I suggesting or insinuating that the producers in Yunnan or the Chinese government, have it wrong by their classification of what is Puer tea and which species it comes from. What I am saying is that base on what evidence I have seen and been told, it would appear that in the past Puer was predominately made from Camellia taliensis and it was changes in demand created by the opening of a global tea market that may have created the changes to using assamica and sinensis to produce Puer tea for foreign markets more so than domestic. The use of other species besides assamica and sinensis to make Puer tea appears to be of a localized demand. For what reason, I currently do not know, but I do hope that my friends in Yunnan can help shed more light on this.
I do believe that producers in Yunnan have a unique situation to benefit from with Camellia taliensis. Puer tea made from Camellia taliensis should fetch a high price, yet it will only fetch that price if the wild or cultivated tea is done so in a sustainable manner.
What about those who make Puer with assamica and sinensis in Yunnan? I believe they will be fine and will benefit from promoting taliensis Puer from Yunnan, because they are promoting Yunnan first and foremost, secondly Yunnan is the apparently the birthplace of tea and the more than likely the origin point of all caffeine containing Camellia teas. Thirdly, I think it is important for all the growers of Yunnan to come together and work with other people (including those reading this and myself) to get the scientific name changed from C. taliensis to C. daliensis. Lastly, I think it is important for all growers and producers in Yunnan to work together and take a census and map out wild and cultivated Camellia species used for tea making throughout Yunnan. In the fall, the census can be taken by identifying each plant in a area and simply counting the flower petals. We know that sinensis and assamica have 7-8 petals per flower, we know taliensis has 11 petals. Creating a map with this information would be beneficial in the future for further study. Maybe a new species can be identified, maybe a hybrid species between sinensis and taliensis, or locating in the wild the other species of Camellia that was once made for Puer.
So what does any of this have to do with Yaupon tea? For those of you who do not know me, I grow and produce both Yaupon tea and Camellia tea under my brand Carolina Cup Tea. What most people don’t know is that the Yaupon tea comes from a holly bush and was made and consumed by the indigenous people of the southeastern United States. (It is the very similar or could be referred to the North American cousin of Yerbe Mate. It is in between a green and oolong tea with lots of caffiene and some antioxidants). I have written several other blogs about it, that you can find on my website. So to answer the question of what it has to do with Camellia taliensis and Yunnan, there is some interesting comparison points to make about the two and how westerners documented them among other things. Below is a listing of the common bonds that these have together yet being so far from each other.
- Both where improperly taxonomic named, I have gone into length and did the due diligence to prove so with Yaupon/Cassine from a scientific point of view. Yaupon/Cassine has the scientific name Ilex vomitoria, named after Aiton, who was the gardener to King of England (when King George went mad after losing the America colonies) and the founder of Kew Gardens. The indigenous peoples of the southeast of a Muskogean language dialect refereed to it as “Cassine,” “Cassena,” or “Asi/Assi.” If they were of a Souixan language dialect that refereed to as “Yapon” or “Yopon.” South Carolina, my home state, had three major indigenous language dialects, Cherokee, Muskogean (Yamassi tribe other smaller tribes Edisto, Stono, Caw Caw, as well as Choctaw tribe and Chickasaw tribe outposts), and Souxian (Catawba and PeeDee complex of tribes). Charleston, SC was a convergence point of Muskogean and Souxian tribes. The Wando tribe (Muskogean) and Seewee tribe (Souixan) lived relatively very close to one another peacefully. The three other minor language dialects in South Carolina belong to the Westoe(Yuchi), Cusabo, and Shawnee. The Westoe and Cusabo are not well documented but it is known they were different. The plant was named Ilex cassine by Linnaeus, later discounted by others but then corrected by botanist Thomas Walter (famous American Patriot secret agent). So just like Camellia taliensis, Yaupon/Cassine has a scientific name that needs to formally changed to properly reflected its’ place of origin. I refer to the tea as Yaupon tea from the Cassine holly and in the future I will refer to and accept Camellia daliensis as the proper name for the Dali Camellia from Yunnan.
- Puer tea just Yaupon tea was made from various species of holly, within the different nations and tribes, yet it was only the Yaupon/Cassine holly that had caffeine.
- Just like Yunnan both the Muskogean nation and Souix nation had a lot of diversity of the various people (tribes). I say this in a meaningful context of diversity and not in a bad context of the people being primitive or anything of that nature.
- The two origin stories of Yaupon/Cassine differ based on being either of a Muskogean or Souixan background. They both do share a metaphorical common bond with Camellia tea. In the Muskogean migration story, it is said that once the people found the land to live in, they met people who already lived there. These people told the Muskogean to put down their bloody tomahawk (a hand weapon for fighting) and cleanse their hearts, minds, and soul with this “white drink,” and be at peace. In the Souixan story, there was a man who became very ill and traveled great distances to visit many medicine men to see if they could heal him. After traveling to all the medicine men, he was not healed. He prayed to the Creator to cure him and fell into a deep sleep. When he was alseep, the Creator came to him in a dream and told him of this plant he would see when he woke up that would cure and keep everyone healthy. The man awoke from his dream to be under a Yaupon/Cassine tree and he made the potion that the Creator told him to make and he was cured. The man went back to all the medicine men and told them what the Creator shared with him. The two bonds shared is the peacefulness and health benefits between Camellia and Yaupon/Cassine tea. There is always an opportunity to resolve differences and find common ground and find peace with tea. The health benefits from Camellia tea have been well documented and there is similar healthy biochemistry with Yaupon/Cassine too, particularly antioxidants.
- Both teas have been and continue to used in various types of enlightenment practices from meditation, to ceremonies, and to simply come together in the morning to discuss the objectives of the day.
I have posted this graphic below before in a previous entry, but for my friends who may have a hard time understanding the differences in indigenous tribes of the southeastern United States, it should help.
It is also worth mentioning, like I have in a older post, in Flora Virgnia by Barton the Yaupon/Cassine scientific name was Ilex religiosa and drew the comparisons to the indigenous people to the Chinese people and how both may have a common origin. Here is a copy of the entry.
It is not difficult now to see the common bonds between two teas. Eventually in the future, we want to ship Yaupon/Cassine tea to our friends overseas, yet we will do so selectively and respectfully as we do not want to interfere with our friend’s ability to produce their goods and make their revenue. (Unlike our competitors here, we have several huge advantages over them, particularly in flavor, cultivation, product development,but most importantly one of owner’s ancestral lineage is that of the Choctaw Nation).
We know that even if we tried to grow and make Puer tea here, it would never be the same as Puer from Yunnan, and if growers in Yunnan wanted to grow and make Yaupon/Cassine, it would not be the same as what we produce, yet the most important thing to either of us, is for us to work together to promote one another and free and open trade of tea around the world. I look forward to more discussion on Camellia daliensis and getting its’ name properly changed as well, just like we want to get Yaupon/Cassine universally accepted as Ilex cassine (Walter). Most importantly, we are thankful for the friends we have made along the way and look forward to enriching and being enriched as we “Grow Forward” in the future.
Until next time, be safe and take care,
*Writer’s note: I want to personally thank Shana Zhang and John Bickel, members of the Wild Qi International Tea Talk group, as well as the many other members of the group who contribute to our discussions on topics. The diversity of backgrounds and experiences and the common thought of honoring all of those who grow and produce tea world wide is a privilege. The future of tea is bright and exciting.