In 2017, I took cuttings of 8 selections from Caw Caw Park. I made these selections not so much as random, but I drew from experiences of working with a diversity of camellia tea in the past, being able to study pictures from around the world, observing particular traits phenotypically (expressed patterns of the morphology~ leaf size, leaf shapes, pubescent (hairs) present or absentee on buds, internode length between buds, plant shape) desired. I wanted to select a diverse group of initial cultivars, to evaluate and build a genetic library for breeding and product development.
After two years from taking cuttings and growing them in containers, I finally had enough new growth to be able to harvest a small amount of leaf that could be processed on a microscale. Why I didn’t do this during the first flush, you might be wondering, the answer is because I pruned back the plants to start shaping them. So I sacrificed the first flush, and yes I pruned them as the first flush was happening, so I knew where I had emerging buds to start building a frame to harvest from. You also have to keep in mind, that these plants are also vegetative propagation stock plants as well.
I processed 4 cultivars into black tea, those cultivars were AHHS 4, 5, 7,and 8. Cultivars AHHS 1, 2, 3, and 6 either did not produce new growth that was substantial or I left them alone to continue to grow, which means more than likely I will prune back for shaping next Spring. AHHS 1 and 2 also got burnt back when we had 105 degree Fahrenheit (40 C) dry heat in late May. Plus, the larger the container, I can grow them in, the lower the chances of transplant shock or death when they get plant in the ground, or at least the greater chances of recovery if they do get stressed out and not die. You have to remember in the United States, the value per square foot (meter) is subsequently higher and our labor cost are also higher than most tea producing regions, with a few exceptions particularly Japan. So doing the planting only once is important from a financial point of view, yet it also important for the health and growth of that plant over time.
Still this blog is about the 4 cultivars that I did make tea from, because at the end of the day, when evaluating tea for breeding the biggest two desirable traits is flavor and yield. With that being said, I am focused on flavor more so than yield. Hypothetically, an excellent flavor low yielding cultivar just requires more square space in planting as along the input costs and comparable to other cultivars. If it is an excellent flavor low yield and requires extra care (input costs) to produce, no matter how great it taste it is not in the best interest to waste time or money investing in it. Establishing a benchmark for flavor is also a lot simpler than establishing a benchmark for yield. You can track flavor through the years, yet it takes years to establish what a nominal yield will be. Flavor comes first, yield comes with time, this is our perspective because we want to develop some of the greatest cultivars not only for the United States, but also other parts of the world.
As far as the “cupping” review method, we used of 3 grams per 150 mL of water at 95 C with a 3 minutes 1st steep and 5 minutes for the 2nd and 3rd steeping. Now, what I will say from personal experience, that plants grown in containers versus field grown plants of the same age do taste different, the flavor tends to be weaker and drop off of flavor is noticeable from 1st steep to subsequent steeps. I could spend the rest of my life researching the reasons why this occurs, yet it would not really change how I conducted evaluation, selection, and future breeding. When I start coming across instances were I feel that it is significant I might change my thinking. It would have to take a container grown plant that has richer flavor consistently over 3 steeps versus a field planted tea over a period of several years of evaluation and I just do not believe that will happen.
When I first noticed this plant, it remind me of a lot of the Oolong tea being produced in Vietnam and Taiwan. Yes, that is merely based on the leaf shape and look. While we know that all the tea seed at the Pinehurst Tea Plantation, Summerville, SC from Formosa (Taiwan) did not survive, as noted by Dr Shepard, it kinda brings up the whole “cambod” type is it a hybird or assamica and sinensis or is it a true subspecies, recent research points to subspecies. We still decided to take cuttings with this potentially an Oolong tea to be produced. Even though it was produced to make Black tea, the flavor was a very nice Oolongish Black, which was a beautiful golden in color. For whatever reason, I failed to take a picture of the cups after 1st, 2nd, and 3rd steeps. While there was a little drop off in flavor between 1st and 2nd steeps, there was noticeable drop from 1st steep to 3rd steep. I am interested to see if the Oolongish Black tea is consistent and I am also interested to actually try to make some Oolong with it as well. As for now, it has a place in the future.
AHHS 5 is such a beautiful plant and it was like finding a piece of treasure out at Caw Caw. It clearly has genetics from light green Assam within it. Now, light green Assam is something I have never seen before in the United States out of all the various tea plants I have observed, even in my time at the Charleston Tea Plantation. Don’t get me wrong, they had a beautiful Assam plant protected with leaves that were huge but it was the dark green type. Nor am I saying that no one in the United States doesn’t have light green Assam. I am saying that I am fortunate that I found this one and have quite a few of them.
What a lot people don’t know, is that in the southeastern United States, if you were to make good iced tea, Assam is what you want to make it out of. Now granted in the future, we will do a lot of experimenting and breeding with this cultivar. Research has shown that Assam types typically have more polyphenols than China types, Assam green tea is supposedly more healthier for you because of this, especially from a green tea .
So if you haven’t figured it out yet, I am again delighted to have these genetics for breeding. As far as the flavor, it has a very good flavor, full body and that typical “Assam” taste, not super strong or weak. It is just right. The aroma of the brew tea, smells just like fresh made tea and just like AHHS 4 the drop off in flavor between the 1st steep and 3rd steep is noticeable. I could just plant hectares and hectares of this cultivar as is and produce some excellent tea, that is if this flavor stays consistent.
When Dr Hao visited my house in August of 2018, he mentioned to me that he believed that AHHS 7 would make good black tea and so should AHHS 8. When I noticed AHHS 7 out in the “wild” of Caw Caw, I thought of it more as a green tea cultivar. At some point in the future, I will try to make it as a green tea, but for now I will continue to study it as a black tea. What I found out by making it as a black tell is that AHHS 7 has a firm body with mild tannins and no bitter that lingers. Not a lot of people in my targeted consumer groups like a mild to heavy tannin flavor. I hoping that once planted this will go down, then again this could also be a strong reaction to the heat stress that it endured in May. Only time and many more cups will tell if this is the case. It could also simply been an issue in processing as well, maybe overwithering, like I said, I want to see how consistent this tannin flavor is. If it is, then I will do the green tea experiments before I decide to discontinue using it in future breeding. It could also be something simple as moving it to one of our other sites that are located out of Charleston, SC to get the flavor I am looking for.
Cultivar AHHS 8:
As far as AHHS 8, I selected it as a “utility” tea plant based on its’ shape, dense foliage. I noticed it had short internodes and non-pubescence buds. I wanted to evaluate it to see if this cultivar would make good tea regardless of the processing method. I have referred to it time to time as “robusta,” because of its’ consistent growth. While I only have a small amount of observation time with it, all indications that from a yield point of view are good.
So when I processed it as black tea, I noticed a firm body with light tannins, no bitters and a weak lingering flavor. The drop off in flavor from 1st to 3rd steep was very similar to AHHS 7 being noticeable. There was a marginal notice in drop off from 1st to 2nd steep as well. So from a flavor perspective, the light to moderate flavor may get stronger when field planted. If so, then we have a good parent for breeding.
Of course I still need to make white, green, and Oolong tea with it before I completely discount the shortcomings with the flavor. Regardless, it does have a great growth habit and if anything it just may need to be cross breed with a superior flavor cultivar to balance it out.
Now while tasting, denoting yields, and the other parameters of observation I have mentioned for evaluation can be mostly done here in Charleston, SC. Eventually, I will take these cultivars up to a higher elevation site and different climatic zone (zone 6b). From there, I will evaluate for cold hardiness and to see what changes in flavor may occur as well. As of now, my assumption is that cultivars 1, 2, 3, 7, and 8, should do fine, since they outwardly appear to be more of sinensis than assamica. Then again, all of these are some unique hybirds that come from more than likely the most genetic diverse tea plantings in the world, so who knows. Still this is a whole another step we will partake in collecting data and information from a evaluation point of view.
So if you are wondering more about what our breeding program is, how it is set up, or what are plan is, I am sorry to let you down by saying,” it is a secret.” What I will say is this, a no point are we looking to use advance genetic modification through technology applications. Conventional cross pollination and selection are the methods that we will use. Of course there are a few cultural techniques that can help us save a years on cultivar development. We are not in the business of or will be in the business of transgenic tea.
I will say a few lines about transgenic plants and move on. From my personal experience of working forestry biotech and from seeing the results produced with transgenic field crops, there is a time and a place for transgenic plants. Transgenic field crops have proven to be success in resistance to diseases and ability to lower cost through herbicide resistance, which have lead to increased yields. Unfortunately, there is a monopoly on the genetics and while farmers have seen marginal increases in profits, it is the companies that own these genetics who have benefited the most. Yes we can produce more food with less space. With forestry, the sun has really set on transgenic trees. What cost millions of dollars to developed failed to translate to higher yields and profits in the field versus 60-80 years of conventional breeding. Now forestry companies did benefit from genetic mapping and identification of specific genes, yet their breeding programs produced elite cultivars through traditional means and it cost a lot less to do so. Sure there are plenty of problems in the tea producing regions of the world where people believe “transgenics” will be the solution, and then there are also people who want to say they did the science and published the next paper and got more funding, yet just like forestry, tea breeding could use mapping and identification to improve cultivars in the future, without spending large sums of money that could otherwise used on projects that will have a greater initial and long term impact on those regions.
I will say that with advances in genetic mapping (which this is a relative new thing for tea) and other associate technology, at some point we look to incorporate it into our breeding program. It will help us make better decisions in breeding and focus only on crosses that we seek to have desired traits versus the mass system. Now granted the old system works just fine, but if it is about getting to our goals quicker, genetic identification work and technology can help.
So the only question that remains on this subject is,”do you plan on adding more cultivars to your gene bank?”
As you can see from 2019 Spring propagation, the answer is Yes! These selections consist of the 5 seeded pod cultivar found at Caw Caw, a unique selection that looks like a sinensis x japonica cross (which the Japanese developed cultivars of and named Chatsubuki), and cultivars currently labeled B and D were chosen because Dr Hao was interested in the willow leaf shape. We did lose all of our C cultivar selection (another willow leaf) along with many other cuttings this year, but unlike 2018 we did not lose everything. We had a very cloudy rainy April and we tried using very low rooting hormone (which we will never do again). You have to remember, plants that are not maintained can be quite difficult to vegetatively propagate from cuttings.
I hope that this blog has given you a snapshot into what we are doing, where we are going, and how we want to build our future. A no point, have I ever said,” I have the best tea,” but I have said,”We don’t have to import seed in the United States and risk introducing new pathogens.” We don’t have to do, because we already have enough genetic material and diversity of it, it is just a matter of taking the time and evaluating the potential of it. In the same token, I do understand that there are those who come from tea producing cultures that want to have the same genetics that their ancestors utilized. I do support this, yet I caution that I only hope that those people are doing it to expand their operations and not doing it for commercial gains by selling plants to whom ever. We have enough problems with introduced diseases and insects destroying our native ecosystems, keeping that to a non-existent status is not a goal but a standard that I hope others will follow with me.
Until next time, I hope everyone stays safe and has great health. We are trying hard to keep the blog post coming out on a fairly regular basis and try to cover various topics. I will say don’t be surprise if a lot of them are about tea, but mostly importantly we want everyone to “Grow Forward,” as much as we do!