The tea plant likes to grow in acid soil in places where temperatures are between 10º C and 35º C, although some varietals can survive short periods of frost and snow in the winter months. Rainfall needs to be around 2000-2300 mm each year and the soil must be well-drained – so the steep slopes of mountain ranges are the perfect location. If the roots of the bushes stand in water for too long the plants will die; in drought conditions the tap roots can often find enough water for the plants to manage until the next rains fall. Like all plant families (think of such things as grapes, roses, tomatoes), the main ‘genus’, Camellia sinensis, subdivides into different varietals (also called cultivars or hybrids). Two main varietals of the tea plants are cultivated around the world for tea production and they each like very different conditions.
The camellia Camellia sinensis var. assamica, known as ‘the big leaf variety’, likes to grow at sea level where the climate is hot and steamy like Assam, South China, Sri Lanka and East Africa. These conditions make the plant grow faster, giving the tea a malty flavour and a stronger colour, and are better suited to the manufacture of black and dark teas.
The Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, with its tiny leaf buds and small neat leaves, likes cool, misty mountain peaks with altitudes of up to 2100 metres (7000 feet) like China, Japan, Tibet, Taiwan, Darjeeling, Nilgiri. These conditions mean slower growth and finer, more subtle flavours and are best suited to the manufacture of green, yellow and white teas.
Over the centuries, the plant has modified itself and adjusted to different local conditions, so there are thousands of tea varietals growing in different places in more than fifty countries. When farmers decide to start growing tea, it’s important for them to choose a varietal that will grow happily in the unique conditions of that particular location. Like any gardeners, the farmers must choose carefully if they want their plants to thrive.