At this time of year in my part of the world (Toronto), we are keeping our eyes on the weather and hoping for clear sunny days to venture out into our long-abandoned gardens looking for signs of life – bulb leaves surfacing, buds starting to plump and earth worms stirring in the soil. Today there’s heavy snow, tomorrow could be mild and rainy – such is April.
On the other side of the world, little green tea sprouts are flushing throughout tea gardens, and pluckers are working long and exhausting hours to bring these tender buds to factory. Producers pushing their leaves to completion and market. I devour photos of immature buds glistening in bamboo baskets with a promise of sweet spring tea.They always appear as small little shoots, smooth and sleek.
Several years ago Tan Long Tea gave me some unusual looking “tea buds” which hailed from Yunnan’s old growth mountain tea forests in Lin Cang. They are plump and scaly. Occasionally I take out the little bag and stare at them. I’ve decided not to infuse them and drink their tea until I understand what they are. This has lead me to search for an answer, with not much to be found in books or online. Some incorrectly refer to them as flower buds. I’ve seen flower buds growing on tea plants and they are hard little green spheres – quite different altogether.
Some of these buds are named Ya Bao 芽苞茶 (bud shell) describing an unprocessed Maocha bud and sometimes Nan Mei 南美 buds from Lin Cang region in Yunnan. There are discussions online as to whether they are actually tea – Camellia sinensis. Most information points to the probability of the trees being the older Camellia Taliensis (an early forerunner of Camellia sinensis var. assamica). Some excellent reading at National Center for Biotechnical Information. Here’s a quote: “Although the planted and recently domesticated populations had a greater genetic diversity, it is the wild populations that have preserved the most private alleles (varients of genes) and rare alleles, making them the most important reservoirs of genetic variation.”
Vendors of these unique tea buds, refer to them as white tea, which I think is mostly accurate since they are not processed, but are only sun-dried. These buds are available as pressed cakes of Sheng Pu-er. I’ve also seen loose, unprocessed buds referred to as Pu-er, probably because they are from Yunnan. Some claim that they have microbial properties. I don’t see how this could be as they are not prepared the way a Sheng (raw) Pu-er is readied for aging. Possibly, because they spend some time in the same factory as the Pu-er production, they might pick up a bit of residual microbial action, but this is dubious.
I don’t believe that it makes sense to explain away the bud’s appearance because it may be a different tea plant. I’m certain that the plump look of the bud can be examined with a little intuitive gardening knowledge. I’ve been an avid gardener for many decades and like those who find a plant’s anatomy and development of its various parts fascinating to observe throughout a full season, I determined that I could use the simple knowledge that I have acquired to sort out this little mystery. I’ve also consulted a horticulturalist in my neighbourhood who looked at photos of the buds and suggested that because the branches on which they formed are older, the buds are larger and that if cultivated tea bushes were left untouched for years, they might also form similar buds.
Trees that are allowed to grow according to their nature, will stretch themselves to produce new wood. Although the iconic image of the tea plant is in bush form, it really wants to be a tree. The tea bush keeps trying to fulfill that promise every spring by sending out new green leaf shoots, which of course are immediately seized for tea production. Add to that the serious pruning that takes place every three years, and it’s no wonder that the tea plant’s natural inclination is stifled!
Old growth tea trees in their semi-wild environment, get to live out their full potential in terms of branching and growing new wood. They produce unique buds that ‘house’ leaves and branch material that overwinter inside the coating of the bud. Because of the material inside, they are larger and have protective scales. These buds are usually harvested in February, before they start to open. If they were left on the tree, the scales peel back as the weather warms, the bud opening to reveal sets of leaves and eventually a branch.
Reviews of these buds often describe a pine-like flavour – perhaps resins or terpenes in the undeveloped wood of the branches.When you think of the bud’s structure condensed into genetic material that is fully equipped to become a branch, it seems like a miracle. From the appearance inside and out and the time of year they are picked, my gardener’s intuition tells me that these plump buds are over-wintering branch buds and are indeed tea.
I don’t know if more buds will appear on the branch the following year, or if plucking sends a message to the tree to conserve what it has and not force more growth. I do hope that they don’t get over-harvested, as is the problem for some of these old tea forests.
Given the provenance, I believe that these buds are harvested from the tea plant Camellia Taliensis. This implies deep primordial roots. Yunnan tea has a great diversity of tea’s genetic material, including Camellia sinensis var. assamica and some Ya Bao is probably from that variety. It’s not likely that you’ll know for sure which plant they are from without DNA testing.
In the meantime, I’ve just made myself a cup of Lin Cang branch buds. They taste distinctly of Pu-er terroir – earthy, forest floor, resinous, but light and sweet at the same time. I hope they will be available for years to come, but I won’t bet on it.