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The Fine Plant of South China: The Rudiments of Tea


At the beginning of The Classic of Tea, Master Lu Yu wrote: 'Tea, the fine plant growing in the south.' He explained that tea is a Chinese plant species, and that tea plants are native to south China. According to modem biological classification, tea plants are classified as follows:

Tea plants can be cultivated from the seeds, and their steins, roots and vegetative organs can also be used for asexual reproduction or vegetative.

Tea Anatomy: Root/Stem/Bud/Leaf/Blossom/Fruit

Root: The root system of a tea plant consists of the taproot, the lateral roots and the fibers. The taproot and the lateral roots hold the plant upright. The fibers absorb water and nutrition and transmit them to the taproot, the lateral roots and the over-ground parts of the plant. Normally, the taproot can reach 2 or 3 meters in depth beneath the ground, so the underground depth of a tea plant may be longer than the overground height, that's why we say the tea plants are 'well established and vigorously developing'.

Stem: The stems of a tea plant can be divided into the main stem and the lateral stems. The lateral stems can be further divided into the skeleton stems and the slender stems. The lateral stem diverging from the main stem is the primary skeleton stem, and the lateral stem diverging from the primary skeleton stem is the secondary skeleton stem, and so on.

Bud: The buds of a tea plant can be divided into leaf buds and flower buds; the leaf buds grow into branches, and the flower buds grow into flowers and yield fruits. The 'bud' in the 'one bud and one leaf plucking standard refers to the leaf bud.

Leaf: The leaves of a tea plant are usually ova-shaped or oblong oval-shaped. They are the major material used to make tea. According to the maturity of the leaves, they can be divided into the scale leaves, the fish leaves, and the main leaves.

Flower: The flower of a tea plant is hermaphrodite (possessing both male and female organs). It usually takes 15 to 16 months for a flower bud to grow, blossom, yield fruit, and finally become ripe seeds. Because of the length of this maturation process, a unique phenomenon is exhibited on tea plants when the flower buds and the flowers of the current year, and the fruits of the previous year are borne in one single tea plant from June to December.

Fruit: The ripe fruits of a tea plant are usually brownish green or deep green. When the fruit shell cracks, the seeds fall into the soil. The shape of the fruit varies depending on the number of seeds inside, it may be spherical (1 seed inside), kidney-shaped (2 seeds inside), triangular (3 seeds inside), square (4 seeds inside), or pentagonal (5 seeds inside).

TIPS How to Identify a Tea Leaf?

When we see a leaf in our daily lives, how can we tell whether it is a tea leaf or another type of leaf?

Here are some tips:

  1. Is the edge of the leaf serrated or saw-toothed? Are there small auburn marks or spots around the edge of the leaf?
  2. Do the lateral veins of the leaf form a closed circuit when they stretch out to the edge of the leaf?
  3. Is the leaf apex curved down and beak-shaped?
  4. Is the leaf abundant in hairs?

If the edge of the leaf is serrated or saw-toothed with auburn marks around the edge, if the lateral veins of the leaf form a closed circuit when they stretch out to the edge of the leaf, if the leaf apex is curved down and beak-shaped, and the leaf has abundant hairs, we can tell it is a tea leaf.

Form: Arbor/Sub-Arbor/Shrub

The plants are perennial evergreen woody plants and can be A categorized into three forms: arbor form, sub-arbor form and shrub form.

  1. Arbor form: This form of tea plant is big and tall, often reaching 3 to 5 meters high. It has a thick trunk, and in its wild environment, the branches are some distance from the ground. Arbortea plants usually grow in primeval forest, and are mainly distributed in southwest or south China.
  2. Sub-arbor form: Compared to the arbor form, this form is shorter and has a thinner trunk, but it is easy to distinguish the trunk from the branches. The crown is larger and the branches are closer to the ground. The sub-arbor form is mainly distributed in Fujian Province, Guangdong Province, Guangxi Province, Hunan Province, and Jiangxi Province
  3. .Shrub form: This form is considerably smaller than the arbor form and the sub-arbor form, usually between 1.5 to 3 meters tall. Upon reaching full maturity these tea plants usually have several major stems and dense branches but no trunk. Most of the tea plants growing in China belong to the shrub form.

Type: Extra big /Big /Medium/Small/Leaf

The size of the tea leaves are the distinguishing factor in identifying each type of tea plant.

According to the length and width of the mature leaves of the tea plants,they are divided into four types: extra big-leaf, big-leaf, medium-leaf, and small-leaf.

  1. Extra big-leaf: The length of Mature leaf is normally above 14cm, and the width is above 5cm.
  2. Big-leaf: The length of the mature leaf is normally between 10cm and 14cm, and the width is between 4cm and 5cm.
  3. Medium-leaf: The length of the mature leaf is normally between 7cm and 10cm, and the width is between 3cm and 4cm.
  4. Small-leaf: The length of the mature leaf is normally below 7cm, and the width of it is below 3cm.

Growth Habits: Four Fondnesses and Four Fears

The growth habits of tea plants can be summarized its "four fondnesses and four fears' Tea plants are fond of acid, light, warmth and humidity, and they fear alkaline, insolation, coldness and water logging.

Fond of acid, fear of alkaline: Aside from tea plants, indicator plants (those which signify the existence of certain environmental conditions) are found in the primeval forest of southwest China and other regions where tea plants are densely distributed. For example, Chinese red pines, Azaleas and ferns, grow in these areas, indicating the presence of acid soils. Therefore, we may deduce that tea plants thrive in acidic soil conditions.

Fond of light, fear of insolation: All living things depend on the sun for their growth. Over 90% of the biological yield of the tea plants comes from photosynthesis, so the correct amount of sunlight is vital for their growth. However, if the sunlight is too strong, it will inhibit the growth of the tea plants. During the process of evolution, tea plants became accustomed to growing in primeval forests where the humidity is high and the sunlight is usually diffused. These growth habits and preferences have been inherited by the tea plants growing today, so we usually find tea leaves of better quality in high-mountain tea plantations, where the clouds and mist facilitate an environment of high humidity and diffused sunlight.

Fond of warmth, fear of coldness: The optimum onset temperature for the growth of the tea plants is around 10℃ (degrees Celsius) and the critical temperatures for growth vary depending on the different type of the tea plants. For big-leaf type, the critical temperature is -6℃ (degrees Celsius), and for medium or small-leaf type, the temperature goes down to -12℃ (degrees Celsius) to (degrees Celsius). Due to the cold climate in north China, the tea plants growing there suffer from freezing injury and some can hardly survive in winter.

Fond of humidity, fear of water logging: During the growing period, the buds and leaves of the tea plants are in great demand of water. Seasonal drought or long-term drought is detrimental to the growth of the tea plants. It is also harmful if they grow in bottom lands with long-term water logging as the root development may be adversely affected.

Family: Six Basic Classes of Tea

Commonly, tea is divided into six classes: green tea, white tea, yellow tea. oolong tea (also known as light green tea), black tea (also known as red tea), and dark tea (which includes Pu'er tea).

These classifications are made according to the difference in the method of processing fresh tea leaves and the quality of the finished teas. This classification method has been applied worldwide in tea production and scientific research, and these six classes of tea are recognized as the basic classes of tea:

However, there are various useful, though less widely familiar, methods of tea classification:

Tea can be classified according to its different degrees of fermentation, that is, the degree of enzymatic or non-enzymatic oxidation of the tea polyphenols in fresh tea leaves. This classification includes:

  1. Non-fermented tea: green tea, such as Longjing, Xinyang Maojian.
  2. Slightly-fermented tea: white tea, such as Baihao Yinzhen, Baimudan.
  3. Lightly-fermented tea: yellow tea, such as Junshan Yinzhen, Mengding Huangya.
  4. Semi-fermented tea: oolong tea, such as Wuyi Yancha, Tie Guanyin, Dahongpao.
  5. Fully-fermented tea: black tea (Gongfu, Xiaozhong, Hongsui), dark tea (Liubao tea, Fuzhuan tea, and Pu'er tea).

According to the annual plucking seasons of the fresh leaves, tea can be classified into Spring Tea, Summer Tea, Autumn Tea and Winter Tea.

Spring tea refers to teas that are made between February and May and use leaves plucked during the spring months. Those using leaves plucked and made prior to Qingming (one of the 24 solar terms in China usually between April 4th and 6th) are called 'Pre-Qingming tea' and those using leaves plucked and made after Qingming and before Guyu (usually between April 19th and 21st) are called 'Pre-Guyu tea' or 'Pre-rain tea'. The spring tea leaves are generally bold, tender with tippy buds, and are green in color. The flavor of spring tea is fresh and brisk.

Summer tea refers to those using the leaves plucked and made between June and July, The summer tea leaves are coarse in appearance and bitter in flavor. Autumn tea refers to those using leaves plucked and made between August and September. In autumn, the colder weather and decreased supply of nutrition to the tea plants means that Autumn Tea is relatively yellow in appearance and plain in flavor. The leaves plucked during Guhua period (the blossom period for rice in September) are made into 'Guhua tea'. At this time of year,there is a great difference in temperature between day and night, so Guhua tea often has a high and fragrant aroma. Winter tea leaves are rarely plucked and made into tea.

According to the growing environment, tea can also be classified into high-mountain tea and lowland tea. Lowland tea leaves are usually yellowish green and relatively in appearance. The tea made from lowland tea leaves has a weak aroma and a plain flavor. High-mountain tea leaves are lush green, bold and tender with hairy tips, and the tea made from high-mountain tea leaves has a sweet aroma and rich flavor,meaning it can be brewed several times. As the saying goes: 'High mountains nurture high-quality tea.

Green Tea: Green Tea Liquor, Green Brewed Leaves

Green tea is made by adopting the basic process of de-enzyming, rolling and drying. The term commonly used to describe the general quality of green teas is 'green liquor, green brewed leaves'. The dominant hue of the dry tea leaves, the tea liquor and the brewed leaves is green, the aroma is pure and fragrant, and the flavor is fresh and brisk.

According to the different methods adopted during the fixation process and the drying process, green tea can be divided into four types: stir fixed green tea, hot-air fixed green tea, steam fixed green tea, and sun fixed green tea.

The classic stir fixed green teas include: Longjing, Bi Luo Chun, Mengding Gan Lu, and Zhu Ye Qing (Bamboo Green). The classic hot-air fixed green teas include: Huangshan Maofeng, Liuan Leaf (Melon Seed), Taiping Hou Kui (Monkey Tea), Classic examples of steam fixed green tea are Enshi Yu Lu (Jade Dew) and Yangxian Cha. The classic sun fixed green tea is Dianqing.

Yellow Tea: Yellow Tea Liquor, Yellow Brewed Leaves

Yellow tea is made by adopting the process of de-enzyming, heaping for yellowing and drying. The term commonly used to describe the general quality of yellow tea is 'yellow liquor, yellow brewed leaves Due to the unique heaping for yellowing process,the dominant hue of the dry tea leaves, the tea liquor and the brewed leaves is yellow, the aroma is pure and clean, and the flavor is sweet brisk.

According to the tenderness and the size of the fresh leaves, yellow tea can be divided into yellow bud tea, yellow small-leaf tea. and yellow big-leaf tea.

  1. Yellow bud tea uses fine and tender bud-only pluck or one-bud-one-leaf for its manufacture. The buds can stand erect in water when brewing in glass teapot, which makes yellow tea perfect for appreciation.
  2. Yellow small-leaf tea is made from small and tender leaves.
  3. Yellow big-leaf tea uses one-bud-two-leaf, one-bud-three-leaf, or even one-bud-four-leaf, one-bud-five-leaf pluck for its manufacture.

The classic yellow teas include: Junshan Yinzhen (Silver Needle) Mengding Huang Ya, Beigang Mao Jian, Luyuan Mao Jian, Huoshan Huang Ya, and Guangdong Da Ye Qing.

White Tea: Green Leaves Covered with White Tea-Hairs

White tea is a class of tea specially produced in China. It is made by adopting the process of withering and (toying. The dry tea leaves are green and covered by a layer of white hairs, the tea liquor is light and clean, the aroma is subtle, and the flavor is fresh and sweet.

The traditional withering process is to put the leaves in the sun until the edges of the leaves are curled and the aroma is obvious, Nowadays, the sun withering is often replaced by hot-air withering, as the high temperature, about 100℃ (degrees Celsius), dispels any grassy smell in the leaves which cannot be cleared up by sun withering alone.

According to the tenderness of the fresh tea leaves, white tea can be divided into white bud tea and white leaf tea. The classic white teas include Baihao Yinzhen (White Hair Silver Needle), Bai Mudan (White Peony), and Gong Mei.

Oolong Tea Green Brewed Leaves with a Red Lining

Oolong tea is made by adopting the process of withering,making green,stir fixation, rolling and drying. Oolong is also referred to as light green tea. The term commonly used to describe the general quality of oolong teas is 'green brewed leaves with a red lining'. The dry tea leaves are greenish auburn, the tea liquor is bright and yellow,the aroma is flowery and fruity, and the flavor is mellow with a sweet aftertaste.

According to the growing areas and the differences in processing, Oolong tea can be divided into North Fujian Oolong, South Fujian Oolong, Guangdong Oolong and Taiwan Oolong. The classic Oolong teas include Tie Guanyin (Iron Godess), Huangjin Gui (Golden Cassia), Red Robe, Wuyi Cassia, North Fujian Narcissus, Phoenix Single Bush, and Dong Ding Oolong.

Black (Red) Tea: Red Tea Liquor, Red Brewed Leaves

Black tea is made by adopting the process of withering, rolling, fermentation and drying. The term commonly used to describe the general quality of black tea is 'red liquor, red brewed leaves' (black tea is called red tea in China). The dominant hue of the dry tea leaves, the tea liquor and the brewed leaves is red, the aroma is sweet and lasting, and the flavor is mellow and rich.

According to the differences in processing, black tea can be divided into Souchong black tea, Gongfu black tea, and shredded black tea.

  1. Souchong black tea: This type of black tea is the specialty of Fujian Province, it can further be divided into Zhengshan Souchong and Waishan Souchong. In all types of Souchong black tea, Zhengshan Souchoag boasts its bold and thick leaf striations, black bloom color, red and heavy tea liquor, high and long-lasting aroma with a scent of pine resin, and a mellow flavor.
  2. Gongfu black tea: This type of black tea is also called 'twisted black tea', it is only produced in China though it is exported abroad, and it is famous for its delicate processing technology. The classic Gongfu black teas include Keemun and Dian Hong.
  3. Shredded black tea: This type of black tea is also called 'slender black tea'. The aroma is high, the flavor is heavy and brisk, and the color of the liquor is brilliant red. The classic shredded black tea is CTC shredded black tea.

Dark Tea: Coarse Leaves, Dark Tea Liquor

Dark tea is made by adopting the process of de-enzyming, rolling, pile-fermentation, second rolling and drying. The dry tea leaves are coarse black blooms, the tea liquor is orange, orange red, or auburn. The aroma is aged with a scent of pine resin, the flavor is mellow and heavy with a sweet aftertaste, and the brewed leaves are yellowish auburn, bold and thick.

According to the growing areas and the differences in processing, dark tea can be divided into Yunnan Ripe Pu'er tea, Hunan dark tea and Hubei dark tea. Hubei dark tea mainly uses coarse leaves and stalks, which go through the process of de-enzyming, rolling, sun drying, pan frying, second rolling, pile-fermentation, and second sun drying. The leaves and stalks are steamed and pressed into bricks, so Hubei dark tea is also called '0ld Dark brick'.

Reprocessed Tea

The processing of tea can be classified into primary processing, refinement processing, and reprocessing. In general, reprocessing refers to a further processing of the tea after refinement processing is complete, such as the processing of scented tea. Sometimes, the refinement processing and reprocessing are integrated into one process, such as the processing of Hunan Fuzhuan tea and Yunnan Pu'er tea.

Scented Tea

In the tea market, tea that has a flowery aroma is collectively known as 'scented tea'. The commonly seen types are real flower tea, flower mixed tea, flower scented tea, essence scented tea, and flower-shaped tea. When we refer to the true meaning of 'scented tea', only flower scented tea is genuine 'scented tea'.

Scented tea is made by blending and scenting the tea leaves with certain flowers so that the leaves absorb the aroma of the flowers, it goes through the basic processes of primary processing of the tea. primary processing the flowers, blending of tea and flowers, scenting, airing, removal of the flowers, baking, re-scenting, and packaging. It has a high and long-lasting aroma after being scented twice, and it can be brewed many times.

Pu'er Tea: Better with Age

Pu'er tea is a product of geographically unique to Yunnan Province, southwest China. It is made from sun-dried Yunnan big-leaf tea selected among the Pu'er tea growing regions of Yunnan Province. The leaves are processed using unique methods and technology, which makes Pu'er tea stand alone in essence and quality.

Pu'er tea comes in two distinct types: Raw Pu'er and Ripe Pu'er. The type depends on whether or not the tea has undergone the artificial post-fermentation process. Raw Pu'er, also called sheng, uncooked or green Pu'er, does not undergo the post-fermentation process and ages naturally; while ripe Pu'er tea, known as shou, cooked or black Pu'er, has undergone the post-fermentation process to give the tea a mellow and aged taste.

According to whether the tea is kept loose or compressed, Pu'er tea can also be divided into loose-leaf Pu'er tea and compressed Pu'er tea. The compressed Pu'er tea is normally cake-shaped, brick-shaped, or bowl-shaped.

General Qualities of Pu'er Tea:

  1. Ripe Pu'er tea: The leaf striations are bold and tight, and the color is of auburn-ish red (or with a touch of grayish white), the color of the liquor is red and heavy, the aroma is aged and high,the flavor is mellow and smooth with a sweet aftertaste, the brewed leaves are soft and auburn-ish red. Ripe Pu'er can be brewed several times.
  2. Raw Pu'er tea: The leaf striations are bold and tight, and the color is blackish green, the color of the liquor is yellowish green or greenish yellow, with a brisk and heavy flavor.
  3. Compressed Pu'er tea: The different quality between loose-leaf Pu*er tea and compressed Pu'er tea lies in the appearance. The appearance of compressed Pu'er tea is regular with obvious edges. It should be well-compressed and have no cover drops, that is, the inner tea should be well covered by the surface tea, and the tender buds and tips on the surface should be even and well-extended.

TIPS A Brief History of Pu'er tea

We have learned that Xishuangbanna is the original native habitat of tea plants, and Xishuangbanna is also the core region of Pu'er tea production. The history of Pu'er tea can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty when Pu'er tea was called 'Pu tea' and was cultivated and produced in a large scale for the first time. In the Song and Ming Dynasties, Pu'er tea gradually spread to the central plain region of China. And Pu'er tea reached its peak in the Qing Dynasty and there was a saying describing the importance of Pu'er tea-'Pu'er tea enjoys nationwide popularity, and it is particularly valued in the capital Beijing.' Pu Yi, the last emperor of China, said that, in the imperial palace, Longjing was drunk in summer and Pu'er in winter. By the time of the late Qing Dynasty and early Republic of China, some high-quality Pu'er teas were traded at twice the price of the gold or silver.

During the period between the Japanese war and the establishment of the People's Republic of China, Yunnan's tea industry witnessed a great depression. Even after the establishment of the new China, for a very long period, black tea and green tea, had been the focus of tea production, and the tradition of Pu'er Tea was interrupted It was not until 1975 that Menghai Tea Factory, a tea enterprise located in Xishuangbannan, together with other tea enterprises in Yunnan, started to produce Pu'er tea again.

With the economic and social development and improved living standards of people, Pu'er tea has regained its popularity in recent years. Its health benefits and extraordinary aroma and flavor have been particularly favored by people in Guangdong, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, and its name has been known to more and more people both home and abroad.

How to Buy Quality Tea?

When purchasing tea, we suggest that you evaluate the quality of tea from the following five aspects:


This is the basic criterion in determining the quality of tea. Tea buds are tenderer than mature tea leaves. And you may notice that buds are usually covered by abundant tea-hairs. So the more tea-hairs a tea leave has, the tenderer it is, and the higher quality it is.

2.Leaf style

There are different shapes and styles of manufactured tea, such as flat style, ball or rolled style, needle style, granular style, etc, If you want to buy strip-style tea, you should examine whether the dry tea leaves are well-twisted, bold or slender, straight or bent, heavy or light; if you want to buy ball-style tea, you should check whether the leaves are even or not, heavy or light, tight or hollow; and if you want to buy flat-style tea, you should look at whether the leaves are smooth and even.


The color of the finished tea is closely associated with the tenderness of raw tea leaves and the adopted processing technology. For green tea, the dominant hue of the tea is green; for black tea, the tea leaver are usually deep red or auburn; for oolong tea, the tea leaves are greenish auburn; and for dark tea, the leaves are black bloom. If you aim at high-quality tea, the dry tea leaves of the tea should be bright and fresh, and the colors of them should be consistent with each other.


This is to judge the overall appearance and completeness of the tea. The more intact the dry tea leaves are, the better the quality of the tea is.


You should check whether or not there are tea stalks, fibers, flakes, seeds, small stones, dust sand and other contaminants mixed in the tea. For a type of tea that is neat, there should be none or fewer of the above contaminants in it.