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Indian Tea Gardens and Plants

The first governor of Darjeeling, Dr Campbell, was the first to experiment with tea planting in the region, in 1835. Campbell planted his own garden with some seeds and cuttings (Camellia sinensis van sinensis) that had come mostly from China. These samples were distributed by the governor general, who was trying to encourage tea growing on Indian soil. There were other samples, belonging to the C. s. var. assamica variety, that were discovered in the northeastern jungles of India by Scottish Major Robert Bruce.

Since these two varieties thrived in their new environment, they were planted on newly cleared land in the same district. It soon became obvious that the Darjeeling region was an exceptionally favorable tea terroir. Despite the lack of sunlight, damp atmosphere and cold mountain climate, which shortened the growing season, the tea trees produced leaves of extraordinary flavor The teas of this region are blessed with rare aromatic complexity and richness.

Several tea gardens in Darjeeling have preserved sections of the original plantations that date back to 1860 or even earlier Growers are proud to show visitors areas of their gardens that contain "pure" C. s. var. The teas harvested in these sections are sometimes referred to as "grands crus," as in the case of the Singell garden, for example, which contains a "heritage", section that grows only original trees. However, as many of these trees are reaching the limit of their productive life, their yield has diminished considerably. (A slowing of the sap's flow seems to be partially responsible for this phenomenon.) Currently, replanting represents a major challenge in Darjeeling.

In order to establish new plantations, a large number of cultivars have been selected to correspond to the needs and climatic conditions of certain areas. The India Tea Research Association at Jorhat (Assam) nurtures and distributes young tea trees grown from cuttings (about 30 for Darjeeling, 30 for Assam and another 30 for the Nilgiri Hills). The cultivars are chosen according to various criteria, including production capacity, adaptability to different soils and climates, and the aromatic complexity of the leaves.

The Camellia sinensis van sinensis cultivars are used most frequently in high-altitude plantations, like those of the mountains of Darjeeling, where weather conditions are harsher The C. s. var. assamica cultivars are more often used on the plains, at an altitude of around 1000 feet (300 m).

Unfortunately, tea trees obtained from cuttings have a much shorter life span. Tea trees grown from seed have a much more highly developed root system, which allows them to extract more nourishment from the soil, giving them a productive life of 120 to 150 years. Cultivars produced from cuttings have a useful life of only about 40 years. Moreover, their shallow roots can quickly drain the soil of mineral resources, endangering later generations of trees. For these reasons, although two-thirds of the plantations in Darjeeling have been created from cloned cultivars, many growers are now choosing to seed certain sections of their gardens.

More than 30 cultivars are grown in India today. Among them, T78, originated in the famous garden of Tukdha in 1978, is one of the most widespread. Although its popularity is in sharp decline because its productivity and quality decrease with age, it has been a star cultivar for the past few years. Most popular today, the AV2 (Ambari Vegetative 2 from the Terai garden) and P312 (Phoobsering 312) are also used regularly, although both are a little more delicate and require good fertilization and adequate water.

VARIOUS DARJEELING HARVESTS

Since tea is a seasonal product, the quality of a harvest depends largely on the growing conditions of the trees. Rainfall, sunlight and temperature all have an effect on the lengthening of the shoots and the unfurling of the leaves. Gardens are picked at intervals offourto seven days, depending on weather conditions. The timing of the intervals between pickings is crucial. Growers must strike a balance between productivity and the health of the plant because excessive picking can endanger the tea tree. In Darjeeling there are three main harvests, each of which produces a distinctive taste representative of the season.

FIRST FLUSH

The first picking period of the year begins between mid-March and the end of March, when the spring rains have stimulated plant growth, and it ends around the second week of May. This first harvest yields light-bodied teas with explosive aromas. The moment when the first new leaves appear depends on the weather and varies from one garden to another: Some growers irrigate to artificially stimulate the growth of the trees, as early as February in order to obtain advanced harvests.

While global enthusiasm was previously centered on Second Flush teas, a new market for exceptional teas was created when the world turned its attention to the First Flush. Consequently, growers strive to create ever more complex fragrances. In Darjeeling, the fresh quality of the young spring shoots is enhanced by a shorter period of oxidation (which preserves the herbaceous aroma), an explosive attack and a sweet aftertaste. Over the last 15 years, the First Flush teas of Darjeeling have become a growing phenomenon.

The first harvest lasts from six to eight weeks, after which the tea trees are trimmed and lightly pruned then left to nest for a few weeks, according to the natural cycle of each garden. After the picking, the plants naturally fall dormant, and growers cannot undertake another harvest until the trees awaken.

SECOND FLUSH

The second harvest takes place from the end of June until mid-July, and it yields a higher volume. Some growers delay the second harvest in order to slip an in-between picking between the first and second harvests. Although they are new, the leaves picked during this second harvest are firmer. They are processed using a longer oxidation period, which gives them a full-bodied liquid with a malty fragrance reminiscent of ripe fruit.

After the second harvest, another pause (banjhi) is necessary so that the tea trees can regenerate before the third harvest.

AUTUMN FLUSH

After the monsoon, which lasts until September, and just before the tea tree goes into winter hibernation, the final harvest of the year, the fall harvest, takes place, in October and November A heightened interest in methods of cultivation and processing has lead to a discernable improvement in quality. As growers seek to increase the number of quality teas they produce, they are paying more and more attention to second and third harvests.

INDIAN TEA TREES AND STRESS

For a plant that originated in the tropical forests of south China, the rigorous conditions found in the mountainous regions of Darjeeling can be difficult. However, this stress contributes to the development of exceptional aromas. Here is the opinion of S.E. Kabir, founder of the Department of Tea Studies at North Bengal University: "The high level of volatile components that produce aroma (VCPA) found in the tea trees of Darjeeling can be attributed to the 'meeting' between the Chinese variety and the agro-environmental conditions of the region. The misty atmosphere - high humidity, short periods of sunlight, etc. - favors the synthesis of the precursors responsible for the biosynthesis of the enzymes necessary for the production of the volatile components and, therefore, of the taste." The unfavorable weather conditions of the Himalayan foothills would appear to be essential for the development of the aromatic characteristics of Darjeeling teas.

FINE PICKING

In Darjeeling, the usual method of harvesting is fine picking, which means that only the final bud and two leaves are picked.

THE CHEMISTRY OF BLACK TEAS

Polyphenols are essential components of tea leaves. In the fresh leaf they are colorless and acrid, but during oxidation these enzymes are transformed into theaflavins and thearubigins, the two elements that give tea its color and astringency. Oxidation develops brown, red and black pigments and reduces the leaves' astringency.