Oolongs: Tea Plants & Major Regions

camellia sinensis, variety sinensis, sub-variety shuixian, culti

The tea plant that makes one of the rare classic style Phoenix oolong, Almond Dancong: camellia sinensis, variety sinensis, sub-variety shuixian, cultivar xingren xiang

infused tealeaves of a high oxidation oolong to compare with bla

The appearance of infused leaves tells something about the nature of the tea: Xingren Xiang Dancong (杏仁香單欉)

diversity of cultivars

There is a wide-spread theory in the West thinking that all teas are produced from the same tea plant, Camellia sinensis. The fact is, there are so many variants of the species that I do not think there is enough thorough studies of all the production tea plants in use to really properly categorize them. The condition through thousands of years of domestication and breeding various tea areas in China, some of them hardly visited by qualified botanists, is entirely different from the standardized horticulture practiced in other tea regions. Without any thorough scientific examination of all these varieties, it is not responsible to insist on that theory, which was formed by the West when basically only green and black teas were known to their world.

Old producing tea tree and its "off-springs"

An old producing tea tree on a dark rock, close to a few generations of its off-springs in the terraced slope. Fenghuang (Phoenix), Guangdong

Oolong is a classic example of this case. The leaves, bush characters, and growing conditions are so entirely different from one cultivar to the next that it is difficult to convince anyone that they are the same plant. They may be the same species, or related species, but certainly there are a lot more differences in their genes that render this group of plants better for oolongs than for green or black teas. Nature somehow designates them for oolong production; none other tea plants can do a better job.

Some long narrow leathery leaves, some juicy fat round leaves, some leaves with pointy numerous teeth, others with round ones, some bushes are barely 30 cm tall even when they are decades old, some a few meters, some are plucked when they are three years old and then pruned, some are still productive even when they are already 700. They taste and smell differently, even when made in nearly the same production method.

the oldest existing production area

The oldest oolong area in existence today is Mount Wudong, deep in the Phoenix Mountains in the northern borders of the Guangdong province. As recently as 15 years ago, this was an area quite separated from the rest of the world other than a steep dirt road a few hours away on motor bike from the nearest small town. There are production trees of over 700 years old, and traditional manual methods were still in meticulous practice when I first visited it in the previous millennium, when semi-automatic machines were beginning to take over some of the more mechanical procedures. Today, except for some minor changes such as employing electricity in certain procedure rather than wood, nothing much has changed.

song-cultivar-oolong

When carbon dating verified that the oldest production tree in Wudong was over 700 years old, suggesting that the folklore of serving tea here to the last emperor of the Sung Dynasty might have its factual basis, the characters “Sung Tea” were carved here in the dark rock above the tree. Calligraphy by Huang Bo Zhi, a life-long Phoenix oolong advocate of local descent.

The plants in this area are related to those in Wuyi, in northern Fujian, but very different from those in Anxi, in southern Fujian. Both the plants in Wuyi and Anxi are the progenitors to most of those in Taiwan. New cultivars come about in all of these regions every now and then.

There are, of course, other locations that produce the tea, and I believe in a number of years there will be new stars emerging. As a matter of fact, the demand for mass-market quality is so great that there is a constant pressure to push production capacity. I have come upon some near quality ones from Chiang Rai in Thailand. Estates in Vietnam, Nepal, India, and Indonesia are also trying; theirs are focused in the quantity market.

We shall be looking at these four sub-categories in this site:

  • Phoenix (Fenghuang)
  • Wuyi
  • Anxi
  • Taiwan*

(*Please note that the one under Taiwan is being developed right now; theirs is a complex and colourful range because of local scientific and technical efforts that have been invested in oolong since modernity. I’d very much like to present them with a decent representation.)

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