How wild is your green tea?
The humble cup of tea has become a ubiquitous part of our lives, but how often do we stop to think about where it comes from?
When we do, chances are that we think of neatly manicured tea plantations with leaves being plucked from row upon row of tea bushes. In many cases, this image is not far from the truth. But in a remote corner of Vietnam – the source of our Suoi Gang green tea and Nam Lanh black tea – it is a very different story.
Earlier in the year I paid a visit to our Vietnamese partners to find out more about this very unusual tea. The trip took me deep into the hills of Yen Bai province to an area inhabited by an ethnic group called the H’mong. The region produces a lot of tea, and much of the landscape is dominated by the distinctive contours of tea plantations. But not in the H’mong villages I visited. If I hadn’t known what I was looking for, I would never have guessed that tea picking is the mainstay of their village economy.
The reason that it’s not obvious is that the plants are not ‘normal’ tea plants – they are large trees and they grow in the forest. To the untrained eye, these villages were totally wild.
To many people it comes as a surprise to learn that the tea plant, Camellia sinensis can grow up to about 20 feet in height (the Indian, or Assam, variety grows much taller). The neat plantations that we normally associate with our morning cup of tea are in fact heavily pruned – almost bonsai – versions of their true selves.
Many of the trees in these villages are thought to be well over 100 years old (nobody really knows). It is likely that the forest was once much more diverse than it is now, but since it has brought economic benefit, new seedlings have been planted in the place of other trees. It is now a mixture of wild and planted tea, and hard to tell them apart.
I timed my visit to coincide with the first harvest of the season. For two blissful days I wandered through the tea forests being greeted by big smiles from colourful women perched on branches above us, reflecting on why and how the H’mong had chosen not to create tea plantations like everyone else.
When I put this question to them, the answer was simple: the tea trees look after themselves – they require no inputs: no fertilisers, no pesticides, no irrigation. The only management is a bit of pruning during the first harvest of every year, otherwise all they have to do is climb the tree and pick the leaves.
They explained that, although regular tea plantations are easier to harvest and produce higher yields, they are much more susceptible to pests and diseases and require more inputs and management. And due to their relatively short root system, they are more vulnerable to drought – a problem that has become noticeably worse in recent years.
The wild trees on the other hand have long roots that not only access moisture deep underground, they also access minerals deep in the lower layers of subsoil. These minerals improve the health and resilience of the trees, and also provide a more mineral-rich tea for us. Tests at Pukka have shown that our green tea from Vietnam has by far the highest levels of antioxidants of all of our teas – most likely a result of the long, mineral-mining roots of the wild tea trees.
Another advantage of allowing the plants to grow to their full size is that the long roots help to hold together the steep slopes and prevent soil erosion. The trees also make efficient use of vertical space, allowing the villagers’ animals – mostly cows and pigs - to graze under their canopy. The forest floor is full of wild plants and flowers, all of which create a much more diverse environment, which reduces the risk of pests and diseases. In short, it is an excellent example of a sustainably managed agroecosystem.
The only downside to the trees are the comparatively low yields. But this is more than compensated for by Fairtrade certification, which guarantees a premium price as well as a community fund for social development. For every 1 kilo of tea that we buy, we donate 1 dollar to the fund. In the last few years this money has been used to build and maintain roads and bridges – a vital lifeline from their remote villages to the collection centre, where the tea is purchased before being taken to the factory.
After spending several days visiting different villages, walking through the tea forests, I returned inspired by how the H’mong people have found a way to create a livelihood so deeply integrated into the ecology of their village. Now, every time I drink a cup of Supreme Matcha Green, English Breakfast or Turmeric Gold, I think of the deep roots of wild tea trees that provide such an amazing blend of benefits for everyone involved.