The very early years
Earlier this month Taiwan’s Tea Research and Extension Station (TRES) introduced the latest product of their century old plant breeding program; TTES #24. This is significant for TTES #24 is only the second tea bred using a Taiwanese wild tea plant parent and it is the first to use Taiwanese wild plants as both the male and female parents. But what is this Taiwanese wild tea plant and from where does it come?
As always, uncovering origins is a murky enterprise when dealing with Taiwanese tea subjects. What we do know is that by early in the 18th century, aboriginal Taiwanese in the center and south of the island were trading with Dutch merchants who had come to their shores. The Taiwanese traded tea for Dutch goods and the tea they traded must certainly have been Taiwanese wild tea. However, this trade died out over the following century due, in large part, to the upheavals wrought by competing western trade and military expeditions to what was then known in the West as Formosa.
In the late 18th and, even more so, in the 19th centuries Han migration to Taiwan from China’s Fujian province increased dramatically. These migrants brought with them domesticated tea plants and seeds which were used to establish tea gardens in the northwest, close to the growing city of Taipei. The island’s wild tea plants which grew in the center, south and east of the island, retreated further from view.
The colonial period
Interest in these wild teas enjoyed a rebirth of sorts during the Japanese colonial period. The Japanese were extremely interested developing the production of black tea in Taiwan and initiated many steps to further this end. In 1903 they established the Tea Manufacture Experiment Station (now the TRES) in Yingmei, just south of Taipei. Later, they opened a branch in Yuchi, in central Nantou county. The Yuchi facility has a splendid Japanese style black tea factory built to help with their experimentation.
That the Japanese introduced many Assam cultivars to Taiwan is well known. Less well known is that they encouraged (sometimes quite insistently, I am told) the planting of cuttings from Taiwan’s wild tea trees in the gardens in the area around what is now Sun Moon Lake These cuttings were sourced in the high mountain regions where the trees grew wild and the resulting plants were given the name shancha (mountain tea.) In the halcyon days of Tillerman’s brick and mortar store, I carried two of these teas; one called simply shancha and the other “purple bud.” Both of these black teas were produced by Chen Kuan-Chung (KC) from plants grown in his garden at Sun Moon Lake.
Perhaps his interest in exploring the original high mountain site sprang from having their asexually propagated progeny growing on his land but, be that as it may, KC set off on annual expeditions into the high mountains near his home in Puli to search out leaves from these wild plants. These leaves he fashioned into a maocha that was extraordinarily reminiscent of pu’er maocha. Although production of this tea was miniscule, KC shared samples at his booth at the 2009 World Tea Expo. These teas were nothing short of astonishing and those who tasted, nothing short of astonished.
Another certain contributor to the increased awareness of Taiwan wild tea plants was the development of a new cultivar by TRES; No. 18 or hong yu. This cultivar, registered in 1999, was a cross between a Burmese Assam (female parent) and a Taiwanese wild plant (male parent.) This was the first time an indigenous Taiwanese tea had been used in the TRES breeding program and the results were exceptional. Hong yu (also known as Red Jade and Ruby Black,) with its distinctive wintergreen character, has become one of the most sought after of Taiwanese black teas. And sustained interest in TTES #18 has again focused attention on the wild tea trees of Taiwan. Taiwan’s wild teas once again were playing an important role in the country’s tea industry. And the 21st century has brought more changes that have cemented a significant role for these indigenous tea plants.
DNA and the identification of a new species
In 2001 geneticists at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda MD, published the first complete sequencing of the human genome. From that point onward, DNA sequencing has become the gold standard in many research fields, including botany. It was not long before these techniques were being employed to study the germplasm of tea cultivars in Taiwan.
Morphological analysis published in 2007 had raised an interesting possibility; that Taiwan’s native tea trees might not be camellia sinensis at all but perhaps should be seen as its own species. By 2009, DNA analysis was available that confirmed the distinct nature of Taiwanese wild tea; it was not camellia sinensis at all but a distinct species that was given the name, camellia formosensis. The authors of this study noted the genetic vulnerability of Taiwan’s camellia sinensis cultivars; as they are all clones and do not have significant germplasm diversity. They suggested that the introduction of camellia formosensis germplasm would go a long way to assuring continued viability of Taiwan’s tea industry. An influential 2014 study reached the same conclusions.
And now we have TTES #24 and the promise that camellia formosensis will continue to have a major role in Taiwan’s tea industry. We already are seeing some Taiwanese “pu’er” being offered on the market. Whether this comes from wild trees in the mountains or from shancha that is garden grown is an open question. Harvesting the wild trees remains illegal in Taiwan and, even if the tea were to come from such trees, the quantities would be so small that the tea would not be commercially viable. As #24 becomes more established, we may see more of these types of tea.
What might this mean for the idea of tea?
There is another interesting “fact” surrounding tea from camellia formosensis; it gives the lie to the notion that all tea is made from the camellia sinensis species. That is not really a “new fact” for, although often overlooked, camellia taliensis and camillia irrawadiensis have been used in the making of pu’er tea from the beginning. But camellia formosensis truly brings this into the open. The rather flaccid counter argument is to claim that beverages made from camellia formosensis and #24 really aren’t teas at all. This defies common usage, not to mention common sense.
The new species, being native to Taiwan, also challenges, or at least broadens, the notion that tea originated in southwest China (Zomia, to be more precise.) Perhaps that is the reason that the Chinese have been so very slow to recognize it as real.
That’s my take. What’s your view?
With thanks to Bok for inspiring this post.
 The Tea Research and Extension Station was fouded in 1903. It is one of the world’s leading tea plant breeders and research organizations.
 Taiwan Times, Wednesday August 7, page 2
 TTES 18 was registered in 1999
 See my earlier blog “Of Green Hearts, Black Dragons and Soft Stems: A Look at “Qing Xin Wulong”” https://tillermantea.net/2018/11/qing-xin/
 The first mention of this activity in Chinese was in the early 18th century. I have been told that there are even earlier records in Dutch shipping logs but I have not seen these myself.
 See Roy, Dennis Taiwan: A Political History (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2003) passim.
 Roy, passim, and Gardella, Robert Harvesting Mountains: Fujian and the China Tea Trade (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1994) passim.
 Taiwan, then called Formosa, was a Japanese colony from 1895 until 1945
 Sun Moon Lake, in its current form, was created when a hydro-electric dam was constructed by Japanese 1931
 KC Chen, personal interview.
 All such excursions are semi-clandestine as the wild tea trees are protected under Taiwanese law.
 See, Hu CY, Tsai YZ, Lin SF (2005) “Using ISSR DNA markers to evaluate genetic diversity of tea germplasm in Taiwan.” J Agri Assoc China 6(5):463–480
 Hu, Chih-Yi, You-Zen,Tsai3 and Shun-Fu Lin1, “Development of STS and CAPS markers for variety identification and genetic diversity analysis of tea germplasm in Taiwan” Botanical Studies 2014, 55:12
 Zomia is a term coined by cultural anthropoloists to refer to what is now southwestern Yunnan, northern Laos and Myanmar and the upper reaches of Vietnam.
 They still haven’t.
Incredible article – thank you for sharing this wealth of information.
Thank you Noah. I really enjoy doing the research for these posts.
Very interesting write up. Thanks a lot. I just received some tea leaves from old wild native trees but it was difficult to get more info about it. I can see now why since its maybe not allowed to harvest them officially.
Wonderful article. I would love to see more about the Neolithic cultivation of tea. The Tianluoshan archeological site is not far, relatively, from Taiwan. Perhaps, there is some connection?
Thank you for the kind comment. The best discussion I have found of the very early use of tea is in “The Tale of Tea: A Comprehensive History of Tea from Prehistoric Times to the Present Day” by George van Driem. The book gets pretty Euro-centric after leaving the discussion on prehistory but it is really good on that (especially if you are interested in linguistic analysis.)