As to whether wild tea tree leaves can be drunk or not, or whether they are good for our health or not, there is sharp disagreement.
Another topic people often discuss is the difference between Yunnan white tea and the white tea from Fujian province, such as White Peony and Silver Needle.
I have been working deep in the mountain tea forests and have visited lots of local tea farmers pondering these questions. I finally decided to write this article in hopes of answering the questions above – and especially to help myself discover the answers.
Should You Brew Tea From Wild Tea Trees?
First of all, some people think wild tea is the best, as it grows in the wild without any pollution, making it the best of the best in their minds. Others disagree, believing wild tea contains toxins that should not be consumed by humans.
I have searched through the documentation on tea for years trying to find the truth. After years of research, I found this to be one of the best descriptions of the wild tea tree:
Wild Tea Trees vs. Ancient Tea Trees
The big difference between a wild tea tree and an ancient tea tree is that ancient tea tree usually refers to cultivated tea plants that have been grown over hundreds of years. Wild tea tree refers to trees originally grown from wild seeds and in wild conditions without disturbance by human beings. This type of tea tree is usually genetically diverse and rare. It’s highly valuable, and it’s important that we search out and protect this type of wild tea tree. And since ancient tea tree plantations usually protect original varieties, they won’t be replaced by new varieties.
Nowadays, there are only 95 officially listed areas of wild tea trees and ancient tea trees in China. This means the wild tea trees and ancient tea trees could be endangered species. Another possibility is that we don’t have a deep enough knowledge of wild tea trees and ancient tea trees in the deep forests, where many unknown and undiscovered species could exist still.
Another important piece of information is that wild tea trees are all grown from seeds, which called is sexual reproduction, and this kind of seed growing can lead to genetic mutations in tea trees.
Basically, there are two types of tea trees. One type is grown from seeds. Another type is grown from cutting the plant. Growing from cuttings is also called asexual reproduction. Teas are grown by seed undergo much genetic variation over generations, whereas the plant cutting methods can usually preserve the original tea plant’s genetic composition, making genetic variation unlikely.
Some people have recorded finding wild tea tree species that taste bitter, sometimes making the tongue tingle and making the throat dry, with some even causing diarrhea, so some people really believe wild tea should not be drunk at all.
So, because of the wild tea tree’s complexity, and because it is grown from seeds, and based on different geographic locations and biodiverse environments, the wild tea tree has very high scientific research value. But for me, the priority is to find the quality wild tea tree varieties most suitable for human consumption and protect them from destruction.
Generally speaking, tea (camellia sinensis) is a type of plant that prefers lots of sunlight. When it grows in the forest, because lots of other species are growing together with it, the tea tree usually grows very tall so it can tower over other species to get the most sunlight. Based on my years hunting wild tea trees in the forest, I found that without any disturbance from humans, the trees can reach dozens of meters in height, with the tea leaves usually only at the very top of the tree’s crown. People would have trouble reaching the tea leaves, or even recognizing the trees as tea trees.
Through years of tea tree leaf specimen collection, I found the biggest differences between the pure wild tea tree leaves and those of the ancient tea tree after human domestication are:
Another important thing worth paying attention to is that since wild tea tree teas are grown from seed, they undergo genetic mutation.
Most of wild tea tree leaves are very difficult to swallow, the local Yunnan tribe peoples call wild tea “bitter tea.” Finding a really good variety of wild tea that is suitable for drinking is really not an easy task.
But something worth mentioning is that if someone says the wild tea cannot be drunk at all, that is definitely wrong. Since ancient times, from the time tea was discovered until the present where human use of tea is widespread, the right varieties of wild tea were harvested from the forests. People have picked out the good varieties that can be used by humans and then carry out artificial domestication cultivation, thus retaining the uniqueness of the original wild varieties and retaining them. Therefore, saying that wild tea cannot be consumed is incorrect, since much of what we drink is from an uninterrupted genetic line of wild tea.
The Mis-Application of Tea Genetics in the Modern Era
However, after centuries of evolution, human beings are no longer limited to acclimating domestically superior wild breeds. We can also use genetic technology to create lots of new varieties that have never existed in nature before, and we create them according to their own preferences. And those new varieties can be produced and widely used in large-scale tea plantations all over the world. Their characteristics are mainly large-volume production, and specific flavors are added according to human preferences, or even the color of the tea leaves is changed for commercial interests.
The excessive use and abuse of these artificial varieties have caused irreversible damage to the entire ecosystem. At the same time, most people on our planet do not know or care. 80%-90% of the tea market comes from artificial varieties of teas, and these artificial varieties need to be planted in large areas requiring the destruction of forests, so as to obtain economies of scale for the merchants. At the same time, wastefully excessive tea drinking habits by consumers also lead to the continued development of these artificial breeds.
The crisis we are facing now is that the sustainable ecological environment has been irreversibly damaged. Many cherished species are endangered or extinct, the environment of the entire earth has begun to deteriorate, and these artificially grown cash crops (including tea and other cash crops) continue to be endlessly packaged and consumed. This naturally becomes an excuse for some businesses that have lost their original ecological environment and wild ancient tea tree resources to say that wild tea cannot be consumed. This misleads consumers into vicious, unsustainable consumption cycle.
The Best Tea to Drink
So in the end, can wild tea be drunk? And how to identify which wild varieties can be safely used and are good for one’s health?
In the Tang Dynasty ancient tea book "The Classic of Tea", the tea saint Lu Yu has already clearly recorded that:
The meaning is: tea plants growing naturally in their wild habitat are in better condition than those cultivated in gardens. The sunny side of a hill usually yields superior tea, especially when the plants can nestle in the shade of taller trees. When it comes to the attribute of color, purple tea leaves are generally more valuable than green ones. As for the foliage shapes, buds resembling bamboo shoots are superior to foliaceous ones, and unopened leaves are superior to stretched ones. Tea plants growing on a slope deprived of sunshine yield valueless leaves, whose sluggish nature could lead to side effects like the stagnation of circulation, lumps or indigestion in the drinker.
According to this record, we can also clearly see that as early as the Tang Dynasty and even earlier, people had a history of cultivating or transplanting tea trees, but we also know that when choosing wild tea, it is best to choose a sunny hillside, looking for tea with purple leaves, and buds resembling bamboo shoots over foliaceous ones.
Journey Into the Past
With this the basis, I came to the southwestern part of Yunnan, China, about 100 degrees east longitude, 23 degrees north latitude, and 1820 meters above sea level (The exact latitude and longitude I have recorded, but in order to protect the area from ecological damage or overexploitation, I am not going to accurately describe its location here). In this way, we can roughly refer to the area as Pu'er.
My good friend Wu Si grew up in this land since childhood. He knows every tree and plant in this jungle. Wu Si walked in the jungle and mastered the treasures of the land. He acquired much information about animals and plants, and even more fortunately, he is one of the few young people born in the 1980s who is willing to guard the mountains and quietly dwell among them. Many local young people have already moved to towns or cities forever, thereby losing contact with the mountains.
Wu Si is a few years older than me, but he is a young man who is full of forest wisdom. When we go into the woods and look for wild tea with him, you can see the most harmonious symbiosis between man and nature. The forest is him, it’s his home. In the mountains without clear roads, covered with thick leaves, he can clearly identify each invisible road with all kinds of exotic flowers and plants outlining the road.
One day, we set off mid-morning and climbed for more than 8 hours into the depths of the jungle. Finally, we found a paradise of wild tea trees growing in the deepest place. It is far from human influence. The wild tea trees are closely connected. Looking up, the paradise of the tea trees forms a roof of wild tea leaves. The largest of the leaves is almost twice the size of my face. Before, when we were climbing, the whole forest was all ups and downs, and there was no flatness. The sudden appearance of this wild tea forest was accompanied by a small gentle slope and sunshine in the dense forest. We sat on the ground and sat on the thick land full of tea leaves, looking up at the dark green patch. I thought, this is probably the last tea garden of Eden that God gave to human beings.
We chose this spring (2019) to visit this unknown wild tea forest, the purpose being to see how the wild tea trees flourish in spring. Wu Si, my parents, our tea artisan Tianzhi and other friends, and I all spread out and began to search under the wild tea trees to see if they had begun to sprout. Wu Si climbed to the top of the trunk, picking a few fresh and tender tea leaves, and we collected some leaves of different sizes for future research.
The Effect of the Human Pest on Tea Trees
Although the wild tea forest is dense and the sun was shining, the fresh sprouts were very few. Because the trees are tall, and the other plants around them are mixed together, it is clear that the wild tea tree growth is slow, as there is no artificial picking and destruction. These tea trees follow a basic natural law. When the tree shoots emit new shoots, the shoots begin to grow to the largest size they can be, then a new shoot will come out afterwards, which will grow one after another, thus forming into thick branches. However, such a growth pattern does not fit the needs of human beings.
My opinion may be a bit extreme, but I personally think that human beings are the most terrible pests in nature, and we continue to erode fresh natural resources until they can no longer keep up with the pace of human needs.
The human demand for the young leaves of tea trees is just like a group of endless pests. When the sprouts are only just sprouting, we will take them. The tea trees mistakenly believe that they still haven’t sprouted, so they continually invest resources in the growth of buds. This meets the needs of human beings over the short term, but due to the endless greed of human beings, the use of chemical fertilizers and addition of pesticides, the tea tree loses the original slow and leisurely growth pattern of these wild tea trees. In the long run, this is detrimental to the trees. In a book on agricultural research in China, it is clearly documented that in recent decades, the number of ancient tea tree deaths due to human over-harvesting has been countless.
The Secret Groves
Therefore, today, few of us can have the opportunity to sit in this untamed, wild tea forest, breathing the fresh tea forest air. I think it is God's greatest gift to us. Several of us made an agreement under the tree: we will not disclose the exact location of this wild tea forest to anyone. Each year, we have to secretly enter the mountains to see this wild tea forest and check if anyone has disturbed it. I picked a few leaves as records and tasted one of the fresh leaves. Just like Lu Yu mentioned in his "The Classic of Tea", the green tea leaves are of the secondary quality to the purple tea leaves, and the wild tea buds are thick and the leaves are slightly curled.
I investigated this wild tea forest. The tallest tea tree is more than a dozen meters tall (since equipment was limited, height can only be estimated), and the thickest tea tree is about 45 centimeters in circumference. The varietal should be the typical Yunnan large leaf species. In the future, I will give the specimen to relevant botanists for research, and I hope there will be a more exact conclusion as to the varietal.
We stayed in the jungle for an hour or two. Because of the long distance, we had to get out of the mountains before dark. After a complete observation and recording of the tea forest, we immediately left the “tea garden of Eden”.
That we could find this wild tea forest was entirely thanks to Wu Si and his love, since he was young, of the forest. He led us through the path of the mysterious wild tea forest after a difficult climb, and it disappeared in front of my eyes, as if it had never existed.
Out of the wild tea forest, about 2-3 kilometers away from the wild tea forest, Wu Si took us to his other secret tea grove. This secret tea grove is surrounded by forest, but the tea trees are obviously taken care of. The gap around the tea trees is wider, it is convenient for people to walk among them, and the wooden branches are trimmed. But at the same time, it can be seen that the tea plantation is disturbed very little by the relatively common tea plantations. With weeds everywhere, the accompaniment of wildflowers and wild fruits mixed among the trees, and the untamed traits of the tea tree, it’s all obviously natural growth.
Wu Si said, "This is what his ancestors left for him. The tea tree variety is the same as the wild tea tree variety we just visited, but it is better." I asked why the variety is oddly the same, but the taste is better, and he replied, "I don't know." I then asked him: "Is this tea grove planted with seeds?" He said: "Yes, it is the seeds of the previous wild tea forest."
In this way, I immediately understood that the ancestors of this tea came from the wild tea forest we saw earlier, and the ancestors of Wu Si carried the seeds and planted them on land not far from them so they could carefully manage them. Each of the tea trees is roughly 2-3 meters tall, and it can be seen that the tea tree has been cut short and then climbed up from the edge again.
The reason why Wu Si said that the taste is better is that, due to human management, after the tea trees are grown, people began pruning the surrounding plants to prevent the lack of sufficient sunlight during the growth of the tea trees. They receive much more sunlight than the wild tea forest they came from, because the surrounding plants have been trimmed.
Since these tea trees were cultivated from seeds – that is, sexually propagated – and sexually reproducing tea trees vary to adapt to changes in the local environment, I can clearly see the tops of these tea trees, as they have no need to grow so tall to get sunlight. Many of these have large purple leaves, and as Lu Yu mentioned in the "The Classic of Tea", the purple leaves are better than the green leaves. This is also likely to be the same with these tea trees, and is related to access to and the absorption of sunlight.
The Tea Trees That Time Forgot
Then, why is this secret tea forest not managed as a common tea plantation, and why aren’t pesticides and fertilizers applied to produce a large amount of tea? This is related to a special history of China and the close relationship between this historical period and Wu Si’s family.
Between 1949 and 1956, after years of turmoil from war and invasions, China began to rebuild. Since 1949, the Chinese government has operated a planned economy. The simple explanation of this model is that all aspects of the country’s economy were managed from the top down. Individuals could not carry out any production labor in private, and individuals and families were not even allowed to cook in their own homes. Cooking and dining were unified and performed in a place designated by the government. No one could conduct production and trading activities in private without permission.
Because of these historical factors, the original Chinese tea gardens managed by individuals were abandoned and left unattended for more than ten years, as the Chinese government does not allow anyone to cultivate them privately. These people were forced to abandon the tea gardens, which began to grow freely. Without human disturbance, the gardens quickly overgrew into forests, and re-established their natural ecological characteristics as tea forests. They were no longer dwarfed by people as small shrubs.
At the same time, due to these special historical reasons, these tea trees are fully integrated into the surrounding natural environment. Once again accepted by nature, they became a wild tea forest that has enjoyed no human interference. In China, people have given this type of tea grove a special name: Fang Huang Cha (放荒茶). It means a tea tree that grows naturally after being abandoned by humans. After the baptism of these wild teas through survival of the fittest in the wild, the tall tea trees that we can see nowadays are already high-quality products after everything else was naturally eliminated.
Since Wu Si’s ancestors planted these tea trees after transplanting the seeds from the wild tea forest, his ancestors and family members did not have much time to look after the tea trees because of various personal and family reasons, such as earning a livelihood. Allowed to grow naturally, because no one has picked it for generations, a tea tree accumulates a lot of nutrients, and the aroma and taste of the tea is extraordinary.
Fortunately, Wu Si is not a simple tea farmer. He is a young farmer who grew up between the jungles and loves nature, and he has certain other special qualities. He has wide knowledge and experience in the growth of wild plants. He knows the growth of every forest around him. He knows that the application of chemicals plays no role in the tea forest paradise that protects him. After we met, I began to further encourage Wu Si. I told him that he should protect the tea forest from damage and pollution.
Any slight traces of human beings in the forests are easily recognized by him. I agreed with Wu Si that he would go into the mountains every day to check if anyone was damaging the forest, and I would visit him from time to time every year and go with him to see the growth of the tea trees and forests.
In the event of human destruction, we will immediately record it and make it public on the Internet, seeking relevant organizations or agencies to help investigate the people who would destroy the forest. This is the agreement between me and Wu Si. We hope that this beautiful, secret tea forest will remain beautiful and free for the remainder of our lifetime and for generations to come.
Through the records of this work, I have determined that the ancestors of Wu Si left this artificially planted wild tea forest, which embodies the true biodiversity that I have been seeking for many years, and the original ecology of pollution-free, high-quality wild tea varietals.
Because this tea forest is small in area and the output is very small, I told Wu Si that if we want to ensure that this tea forest can live forever, we need to do a few important things:
I take the above words and pictures as evidence, and hope that our small efforts will at least be able to hold the habitat of this small wild tea tree on the earth without constant environmental degradation. Through the above, I think you can also find out for yourself whether wild tea can be drunk, and I don't have to repeatedly explain the health benefits.
- By Shana Zhang
Photos took by teapot artisan: Zhang Jiansheng
The blog edited by Lucas Ledbetter
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