The tea plant is an evergreen shrub that grows mainly in tropical or sub-tropical regions. In its wild state, the tea plant can attain a height of over 10 metres; when cultivated, regular pruning keeps it at about 90 cm, a height convenient for harvesting. The buds and young shoots are covered with a fine down, hence the term pekoe (in Cantonese, Pak-Ho means hair).
It was long believed that the green teas and the black teas came from different plants. However, in 1843 botanist and adventurer Robert Fortune was able to prove that both teas were made from leaves of the Camelia Sinensis plant, the difference lying in whether or not the leaves were left to oxidize through contact with the air. The three major categories of tea are: the black teas (fermented), the oolongs (semifermented) and the green teas (not fermented).
The quality of the tea produced is determined by the season in which the tea is harvested, how it is harvested, and the way the leaves are treated. The first, or spring harvest offers up the finest and most tender leaves. The second, in the summer, and the third, in the fall produce more abundant but less delicate crops.
Tea plantations are usually set out on the slopes of a hill where drainage is good. Although tea plants need constant moisture, waterlogged soil can lead to rotting of the roots. Some large trees are left growing on the plantation site; their leaves filter the burning afternoon sun and then act as a natural fertilizer when they fall to the ground.
The tea harvest today is generally mechanized, but traditionally, this was considered women's work, as women were judged more skilful at such a delicate task. A tea harvester gathers on average 30 to 35 kg of leaves every day, or 40 000 to 60 000 shoots.
The younger the leaves of the tea plant, the more tender they are and the higher their quality. The choicest pick is the bud (pekoe) and the first two leaves. The quality of the tea, as well as the price for which it can be sold, diminish as more of the large, tough, mature leaves are added. It is up to the plantation owner or manager to decide whether quality or quantity will predominate in production. World market prices will play a key role in this decision, as will the advice of the tea broker.
Regular pruning and cutting back every three years keep the tea plants at about 90 cm, a comfortable height for plucking. Pruning both encourages new growth, and forces the new shoots to develop horizontally to the top of the plant, creating what is known as the plucking table. Long bamboo sticks serve as visual cues for the tea pickers, showing the level below which the leaves must not be harvested. This promotes regrowth and avoids the accidental plucking of the mature, strong-tasting leaves that would produce a coarse, mediocre harvest.
©1996: Centre d'histoire de Montréal
Picture source: Jardin botanique de Montréal