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‘King of Tea Trees’ A Sequel

I don’t recall, a decade or so ago anyone much thought of picking tea from single trees. ‘单株/dan zhu’. It’s a thing that started in the last few years. Perhaps as Puer tea has become more expensive and as tea drinkers have been exploring the world of Puer more deeply. I guess it’s also a marketing thing: selling exclusivity. But since every ancient tea tree is unique, there is some logic to it also: even trees in the same tea garden can be quite different. Sometimes there can be a number of sub-varieties or forms of sinensis assamica growing next to each other: one more bitter, another sweeter. It’s done with larger, older trees where a single tree might only flush once a year in Spring, and may typically yield say five to ten kilos of fresh tea, which might produce a couple of kilos at most of maocha.

Xishuangbanna, Menghai Ancient tea tree No 46.

A few weeks back a tea farmer friend took me to see a tea tree which is clearly quite old: the girth at the base is probably getting on for 100cm and the trees branches cover an area of at least 10㎡, helped by the fact that it must have been polarded a long time ago. Let’s say it’s six to eight hundred years old, judging by other trees in the vicinity that are of known age.

‘Have you drunk tea from this tree?’ I asked. He hadn’t, but a few days later he called me up. ‘I’ve got some.’ he said. ‘Some what?’ I asked. ‘Some tea from that tree.’

I was busy and It was nearly a month before I managed to get round to visiting him. When I did I was expecting the tea to be long gone, but he’d kept it.

The fragrance is excellent, with floral qualities and a hint of something I can’t put my finger on – vaguely citrus. The broth is rather fine, certainly compared to ‘da zhong huo‘ from the area. It has a very slight bitterness and good ‘hou yun’. The broth is clear and a little viscous. Apart from a very slight feeling on the tip of the tongue, which is frankly not enough to detract from its attributes, its really a very nice tea. I brought a handfull back to drink with some friends who at first thought it was a Xiang Ming xiao ye zhong tea. Not at all like the Menghai tea that it is.

The processing looks like it was pretty good. Very even and no red stems.

Autumn

It was nearly the end of October and it had been raining pretty much solidly for three days.

Ten day forecast for Jinghong

And the same for Menghai.

I had thought it might ease up and was contemplating starting to look for some Autumn tea, which can sometimes be quite good, but the rainy season effectively didn’t stop. I called a couple of tea farmers in the Yiwu area who said there was little to no tea. Even if daytime temperatures are fairly high, overnight temperatures can drop considerably.

Early November and more rain on the way.

Once that happens, old tea trees stop flushing. So that was the end of that. It’s been the wettest Autumn since I’ve been in Xishuangbanna, which is nine years.

It’s bad news for tea farmers because, whilst Autumn tea doesn’t fetch Spring tea prices, and the volume is somewhat less, it means a portion of their annual income has just disappeared.

 

Nan Nuo Shan’s ‘Cha Wang Shu’

Anyone who goes to Nan Nuo Shan will have heard about, or visited ‘Cha Wang Shu’, the ‘King of Tea Trees’ that is between Ban Po Lao Zhai and Ya Kou Zhai. It is estimated to be 800 years old or more, but apart from carbon dating, there appears to be no sure-fire way to tell a tea trees age as they do not have rings that can be counted in the way that most other trees do. Locally, there are only word-of-mouth assessments of age, ‘so-and-so’s grandfather says it was yea big when he was a boy’ or something akin to that. Or otherwise by comparison with a tree of known age.

Carbon dating has been used to establish the age of some tea trees. And so to the apocryphal tale of the original Nan Nuo Shan ‘Cha Wang Shu‘. It was growing a little way below Shi Tou Zhai, and had attracted a lot of interest from scientists. As early as the beginning of the 1950’s Yunnan College of Agriculture researchers were exploring the varieties of tea tree in this area. The story is that local hunters who were familiar with the area would act as guides to take researchers deep into the forest. On one such trip in late 1951 a tea tree that was 8.8 metres tall with a girth of 0.83 metres was found. A couple of years later, one Zhou Peng Ju from Yunnan Agricultural College Research Department came to examine the tree, and over the ensuing years an increasing number of botanists and specialists came to examine the tree. Eventually it was established that the tree was a cultivated variety of tea tree.

According to one version of the sequence of events, as more and more people came to visit the tree, the surrounding environment was badly affected and the tree itself was also damaged, and by the mid 1990’s the tree died.

The local version of the story is that scientists came and took samples for examination by drilling into the trunk of the tree, which lead to the death of the King of Tea Trees.

This photo, with the tea tree behind, from the famous visit in 1985, is about all the evidence that remains on Nan Nuo Shan.

nan nuo shan cha wang shu

Zeng Wei Ran and colleagues visit the tree in 1985.

 

Some Old Tea Tree Gardens (and some lessons on transliteration)

Last week, I had a few days’ trip in the SFTM area. The weather was good – dry, warm in the day, cool at night – and I got to re-visit some places and also go to a couple of new places.

I’ve been trying to get to Ma Pia (吗叭/ma ba in Chinese) for a couple of years. I think it was the autumn before last, I was with some friends in Ding Jia Zhai who had just come back from Ma Pia with some tea. One of them had a couple of pictures on his mobile phone. The tea wasn’t up to much – there were some problems with processing – but the trees looked interesting.

Laos China border region


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New Home

So here is HM in a new home. It’s been a while. I just realised, when moving things around, how long the hiatus has been. I’ve been busy with other things, but I’m hoping to still find time to keep this more contemporary.

Spring is still a little while away, but Spring Festival is round the corner – The Year of the Goat. A wooden goat at that. I just got back from a month or so of travelling to rain and some fairly cold weather. Already, I heard a couple of folks wondering about how so much rain early in the new year might affect tea, but it’s early yet. No point in worrying about what hasn’t happened.

In my explorations of the last year I’ve happened on a couple of interesting tea gardens, not well known – one pretty much unknown – from which I’m planning to source tea this Spring.

I’m getting ready to go and check out the tea gardens again and will post a couple of photos when I get back.