Tea growing and harvesting facts

Tea is a natural beverage brewed from the leaves of an evergreen plant called, camellia sinensis. That of which is related to the camellia japonica. The later a familiar tree or shrub. It has become common to refer to any hot beverage that is brewed from naturally occurring plants or plant extracts as “tea”. Technically, they should be called “teassanes”, as the word “tea” is reserved for beverages brewed from leaves of camellia sinensis.

The plant is very versatile and can grow under almost any conditions. However, it grows best in tropical and subtropical climates with abundant rainfall and rich soil. The plant flourishes at altitudes between 2000 and 6500 feet. The finest quality teas grow at higher elevations where the cool climate slows growth, allowing more concentrated flavors to develop in the leaves. However, like wine, the quality of tea varies dramatically from region to region. Most of the variations are due to climatic conditions of the regions where the tea is grown and not from the differences in the tea bush itself.

Tea is grown around the world and originates from one of two important subspecies. Either the Assam type (assamica) or China type (sinensis). The Assam type produces large strong tasting leaves while China type, yields a more delicate tea with smaller leaves.

How tea is grown

Tea was essentially grown from seeds all over the world, until the late 1800’s. Subsequent development of a simple, cheap and rapid method of vegetative propagation, made it possible to multiply and release elite plants as clones for economy and ease of planting. The industry has been using generations of vegetative propagation and leaf cuttings from the best plants to clone productive bushes which yield superior tasting tea.

However, tea is a long duration crop and absolute dependence on clones for commercial cultivation of tea is a risky proposition as all bushes of a clone are equally susceptible to attack from pest or a disease. On the other hand, bushes from a seed population can fit into a wide range of environmental conditions without much change in their overall performance. Therefore, along with plant clones, clonal seed stocks are used for replacement or extension of tea areas.

Planting tea is a very delicate operation and needs adequate planning and proper supervision. It can be done either by seed or by vegetative propagation. Correctly planted tea plants from the nursery quickly establish in the field, grow vigorously and come into full bearing early.

Various field management practices are followed in post-planting care to encourage early establishment and vigorous growth of tea plants and also to increase their radial spread and longevity. These are shade, weed, pest and disease control, drainage, irrigation, manuring and bush frame formation.

Tea plants or bushes are usually maintained or pruned back to three to five feet height which allows for convenient plucking of tender tea leaves. Otherwise, the tea plant will grow to nearly thirty feet, that is why periodic pruning is necessary. Pruning also stimulates the growth of new young leaves or flush. Properly cultivated tea bushes can have a productive life span of more than hundred years.

How it is harvested

Plucking tea is synonymous to harvesting in other crops. The tender apical portions of shoots consisting of 2 to 3 leaves and the terminal buds are nipped off by hand by pickers and put in cane or bamboo baskets tied to the back. Removal of this portion of a tea shoot stimulates growth of the dormant leaf and buds below the apex. The stimulated buds become active and start laying down initials of cataphylls, of normal leaves and of another appendage intermediate between it and the leaf, which is known as fish leaf.

While laying new initials, the bud swells up and after reaching a critical stage, unfolding of cataphylls begin, fish leaf and normal leaves also come up in succession. These appendages carry axil buds,which are capable of producing normal shoots of equal vigor. This unique property is advantageous in designing plucking system.

Care is taken to ensure that the plucked leaves are not coarse, as such leaves affect the quality of the product. Secondly, shoots below the plucking surface are left alone. The time interval between two successive plucking is called plucking round. Normally 6 to 8 days plucking round is practiced to keep a balance between crop and quality but may be extended from 4 to 14 days, depending on the growth rate and quality of tea desired.

The time required for unfolding of successive leaves from a growing bud vary from 3 to 6 days depending on climatic variation. This is called leaf period. The type of shoots left out during previous plucking round determines the size of shoots in the next round of harvest.

Once the leaf basket is full, the picker brings it to the central station where the basket is weighed and passed on to the factory floor. On the factory floor, the manufacturing process of tea begins by preparing it for oxidation and drying.