I really shouldn’t go there!
I know that I ought to just let this go. That is certainly what my mother would tell me to do. But I must get it off my chest.
It all began when I read an online comment from a very influential young tea professional. “Tea made from seeds” they opined, “can have a higher quality.” Now of course we don’t make teas from seeds but from the leaves of the tea plant, camellia sinensis, (and yes, I know I am being pedantic here) but presumably they meant that teas made from the leaves of plants that have been seed propagated are superior to those made from the leaves of plants that are propagated using vegetative practices. Not to mince my words here, that viewpoint is simply junk science. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that there is any discernible difference in the chemical composition of the leaves of plants grown from seed and those produced from cuttings.
But it gets better
Tea is a notorious “outcrosser” so I asked: ”What about the problems of mutation with sexual vs. vegetative reproduction?” “That is not an issue,” came the reply. Not an issue? That is very much an issue, and perhaps the issue, for plants grown from seed will be heterogeneous. That is, they will not be true to type. The plant produced by seed will have only some of the characteristics of the mother plant. Plants produced from cuttings, however, are clones and as such are exact copies of the mother plant. Therefore they have a known genetic makeup. This is clearly of considerable importance to a grower.
Of course there are some advantages to propagating by seed as well. The genetic diversity of seed grown plants helps protect a garden against viral infection, although viruses can also be an issue in seed propagated materials. Seed grown tea plants develop a tap root whereas those grown from cuttings do not, though the importance of this remains unclear. And seed grown plants tend to live longer, although those from cuttings will thrive for eighty plus years so that really is not an appreciable advantage for the tea grower given that the economic lifespan of a tea plant is 50-60 years.
Then comes the kicker
“In the cup the diversity [of plants from gardens grown from seed material] results in a symphony of flavors rather than a single flat note.” Hogwash. Codswallop! Rubbish!!
Again, not a shred of scientific evidence supports this position. Not a shred. And so much empirical experience refutes it.
I fully acknowledge that individual growers will, and should, plant according to their own needs and their own views and that there are pluses and minuses to each approach. To paint tea from cuttings as exhibiting “a single flat note,” however, is just ludicrous.
Tea plants have been propagated vegetatively, by layering, since at least the 19th century. And plant breeders in China, Taiwan, India, Sri Lanka and elsewhere work for years to breed tea cultivars that provide resistance to pests and weather and that exhibit balanced and complex flavor characteristics. The Taiwanese Tea Research Extension Station, for example, spent some 50 years developing the cultivar known as “Hong Yu” or “Red Jade” (TTES #18) before releasing it commercially in 1999. And the sole criterion for the development of this new cultivar, which is a forced cross between a Burmese assamica and a Taiwanese wild plant, was superior taste.
A couple of days later, the discussion was taken up again. When I pointed out that cuttings are used the world over to produce plants giving us some of our finest tea, and when I specifically referenced Taiwan, I was countered by the claim that “a large community of tea consumers” drink only seed propagated “Living Tea.” Moreover, this community, supposedly, is based in Taiwan. Did I not know of Living Tea and Global Tea Hut?
I didn’t, so I undertook some research. First, I asked several of the growers with whom I work in Taiwan if they knew of these organizations. None did. I then did some internet searching and discovered that “Living Tea” is an online seller based in Los Angeles that does indeed claim to deal only with teas from seed grown plants. Global Tea Hut is a subscription based entity that sends out monthly selections of tea to those subscribing to its magazine. I could not determine whether or not they restrict these selections to teas from seed grown plants; they seem only to insist upon organic production. Living Tea does refer to Global Tea Hut on its site and Aaron Fisher, known now as Wu De, and affiliated with Global Tea Hut and with Tea Sage Hut, is based in Taiwan. Wu De, though not necessarily his project, is reasonably well known. I ought to have made that connection. As to size, it seems as though Global Tea Hut boasts only about 1000 members worldwide.
An interesting little side note about Living Tea is that, despite their suggestion that they offer only tea from seed grown plants, one of their featured teas is Hong Yu (Red Jade) which is, in fact, none other than the above mentioned TTES #18, a tea bred by the Tea Research Extension Station and propagated from cuttings. Now it is possible that this particular batch of tea comes from second generation seed propagated plants but that is extremely improbable. Hong Yu was only released commercially in 1999 and the small first harvest of tea did not hit the market until 2004/05. Assuming that one could collect enough seed to start a new garden (a pretty wild assumption) the earliest that seed grown Hong Yu could be on the market would be around 2010/11. And of course, given the issue of outcrossing, would it be true Hong Yu in any event? It would seem that tea plants need to be grown from seed except when they are not.
Is this whole debate not just arguing about the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin? In many respects yes, it is. Until we come back to note that the “seed is best” position was being espoused by a respected rising star in the industry. If this view goes unchallenged, eventually there will be a swath of those looking for good tea that will insist on seed grown before they taste and an even larger segment of the population that won’t be bothered to taste tea at all. We don’t need yet another myth infecting the joy of tea.
Taste is the key. We find teas, we enjoy them and then, only if so motivated, we work backwards to find out how they are produced and grown. We ought never discount any tea, a priori. Whether produced by seed or not.
That’s my view; what do you think?
I wish to thank Professors Katharine Burnett, Dan Parfitt and Jacquelyn Gervay Hague of the University of California, Davis, Dr Paul Kitts of NIH, Adrienne Kitts, Leo Kwan of the Tea Advocate and Marty Wu of Insun Tea for their guidance as I was preparing this screed. Any errors, of course, are my own.