For tea, just as with other commodities like wine, whiskey, or coffee, the most coveted examples are usually the rarest. The allure of any batch that is difficult to find lies in unique flavor complexities, as well as the ever-present draw of exclusivity. In the same way that wine connoisseurs might search for bottles from a legendary vineyard, tea devotees hunt for the leaves from hard-to-find tea trees.
Teas harvested from wild trees, for example, are highly sought after. Most of the hype surrounds pu-erh teas, grown in Yunnan Province in southern China, where ancient tea trees are thought to have originated in the vast, tropical forest of millennia past. But many teas from all over China are sold as “wild” teas, and as with any widespread label, this term can carry a few different meanings. Here are three different types of tea plants that are commonly called "wild".
Native or Indigenous Tea Plants
This is the primary definition used for wild pu-erh teas, referring to trees that have grown naturally without any human cultivation, often for hundreds of years. Outside of Yunnan’s deep forests, this definition is a little more tentative, as all tea production is believed to have stemmed from these trees in the south. Though tea trees now grow and flourish without human intervention in many areas of China, common wisdom holds that these wild trees came about only after the purposeful introduction and cultivation of tea in these regions.
If this is so, however, it makes little difference to the tea trees that now propagate naturally in forests all over China. Whether they were indigenous before human intervention or not, they have now taken root in wild places all over China, and are regularly sought out and harvested for rare teas like Jin Jun Mei, from the Wuyi Mountains. The inherent rarity of trees that must be discovered makes this the hardest to find, but most authentic type of “wild” tea.
Tea Plants Grown in the Forest
The line between native tea trees and forest-grown tea trees is fuzzy, at best, but the important distinction is the human hand. While the most authentically wild tea plants are typically foraged by hand and otherwise left to grow naturally, many are cultivated in their natural habitat, and are called “wild” simply by virtue of their surrounding forests. In Yunnan, where wild trees will never produce enough to meet the incredible demand, they are split, sprayed, cloned, and often over-harvested to increase production, despite many of these techniques being detrimental to the overall health of the natural trees.
The greatest value of tea trees cultivated in wild environs is the inherent biodiversity, which serves to improve not only the health of the plants and soil but also the flavor of the finished tea. But rather than the general location, this has more to do with the methods used by the growers. More traditional plantations can also be biodiverse when grown without herbicides, or even purposely diversified with beneficial companion crops. While the idea of trekking out into the forest to pluck wild tea is a romantic notion, remote locations do not necessarily indicate a lack of cultivation effort.
Tea Plants Grown with Minimal Pruning
Finally, many teas are called “wild” when they are simply grown without heavy pruning. Though they are typically planted together, in an area that is recognizably farm-like, they do not conform to the strict standards of neat rows and evenly trimmed flat tops found on vast tea plantations. Rather, they are allowed to grow into naturally shaped bushes or trees, usually spread out, without clearly defined paths between them. The natural development makes the desired leaves more difficult to find and pluck, and the field more difficult to navigate. It’s worth noting that farms like this are much more likely to promote biodiversity among their plants.
This is clearly the broadest definition of the “wild” label, and not all teas grown this way are labeled as such. But with the relative rarity of other wild teas, the name is often applied to increase the perceived value - and really, they may indeed be better in both flavor and environmental impact than truly wild trees that are cultivated irresponsibly.
While wild tea trees are often touted as the best, not all wild teas are created equal, making this label a poor measure of quality. Rather than relying on this ambiguous word, it is better to find a vendor you trust to give you the details about where and how the tea was grown and crafted.
Have you tried any wild teas? Let us know what you think about this buzzword in the comments!
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