Chinese tea plants are usually divided into two classes, and distinguished a Thea Bohea and Thea Viridis, the former being most suitable for black teas, and the latter for green teas; and black and green teas have been indiscriminately made from the leaves of either.
A tea shrub of Chinese origin now before us, growing among a host of common American plants, displays no special characteristics which would attract attention to itself. It resembles an orange plant. Its developed leaves are smooth on the surface, leathery in texture, dark green in color, with edges finely serrated from point almost to stalk. They are without odor, and when chewed in the mouth, have a mild and not unpleasant astringency, but no other perceptible flavor. A leaf of any familiar domestic plant, such as the lilac, the plantain, or the apple, has a stronger individuality to the sense of taste, than this green leaf of the tea plant.
How was the hidden mystery of its incalculable value to mankind revealed? What premonition guided the Chinese discoverer to the preparatory treatment and delicately graduated firing process which develops tea's precious flavors? And does not this unsolved question suggest the possible existence of other plants, growing, perhaps, at our very doorsteps, possessing rare and unrecognized virtues?
In form, tea leaves have been compared by writers to leaves of the privet, the plum, the ash, the willow, but close observers know that not only do leaves of the species just mentioned represent different types, but that important variations in form occur in leaves of the same species, and in leaves growing on a single tree or plant. The tea plant is subject to the same vagaries, and any description by comparison will be misleading. The reader must be content with the typical forms of tea leaves shown in our engravings on the following page, for which we are indebted to the kindness of Mr. Joseph M. Walsh, importer of teas, at Philadelphia.
All varieties of the tea plant bear a pure white flower, averaging, say 1 1/4 inches in diameter, and resembling very closely our single white wild rose blossom.
Its bunch of bright yellow stamens is so bushy and showy in some varieties that careless travelers have been led to report the flower as yellow in color, which is never the case.
In some Chinese plants, and in those of India, tea blossoms are very fragrant, and they have been used for scenting tea leaves in India, if not in China, as other flowers are used by the Chinese. In India a perfume has been distilled from tea blossoms; and a valuable oil is expressed from the very oily seeds. The long tap root of the tea plant renders it difficult to transplant.
In China, tea is commonly cultivated in small patches or fields, large tea fields being the exception. The nature of Chinese inheritance laws and customs which tend to continual subdivision of land, may be one of the causes of this state of affairs. The least area of spare ground is frequently utilized by the small farmer or the cottager for the cultivation of a dozen or more tea shrubs, from which they procure tea for their own use, or realize a small sum by sales of the green leaves to tea traders. Many a rocky hillside or mountain slope, otherwise waste ground, is terraced so as to detain the rains and meagre soil within its inwardly inclined banks and trenches, and made to yield a valuable crop of tea. Indeed, some of the finest flavored Chinese tea, of fabulous value where they are produced, are grown in seemingly inaccessible retreats among precipitous mountains.
The plate on the following page is a reproduction of a Chinese drawing brought from China by Robert Fortune, the Scotch botanist and traveler, and first published in Mr. Fortune's Two Visits to the Tea Countries of China, London, 1853, now out of print. The picture represents with Chinese fidelity a scene on the River of Nine Windings, in the Bohea Hills, and in the heart of a black tea district. Mr. Fortune spent several days at the scene of the illustration, and writes of the country as follows:
"Our road was a very rough one. It was merely a foot path, and sometimes narrow steps cut out of the rock. When we had gone about two miles we came to a solitary temple on the banks of a small river which here winds amongst the hills. This stream is called by the Chinese, the river of the Nine Windings, from the circuitous turnings which it takes amongst the hills of Woo-e-shan. Here the finest Souchongs and Pekoes are produced, but I believe that they rarely find their way to Europe, or only in small quantities. The temple we had now reached was small and insignificent building. It seemed a sort of half way resting place for people on the road from Tsin-Tsun to the hills, and when we arrived, several travelers and coolies were sitting in the porch, drinking tea. The temple belonged to the Taouists, and was inhabited by an old priest and his wife. * * * * The old priest received us with great politeness, and according to custom gave me a piece of tobacco and set a cup of tea before me. Sing-Hoo now asked whether he had a spare room in his house, and whether he would allow us to remain with him for a day or two. He seemed very glad of the chance to make a little money, and led us up stairs to a room. The house and temple, like some which I already described, were built against a perpendicular rock which formed an excellent and substantial back wall to the building. The top of the rock overhung the little building, and the water from it continually dripping on the roof of the house gave the impression that it was raining.
"The stream of the Nine Windings flowed past the front of the temple. Numerous boats were plying up and down, many of which, I was told, contained parties of pleasure who had come to see the strange scenery amongst these hills. The river was very rapid, and these boats seemed to fly when going with the current, and were soon lost to view. On all sides the strangest rocks and hills were observed, having generally a temple and a tea manufactory near their summit. Sometimes they seemed so steep the the buildings could only be approached by a ladder; but generally the road was cut of the rock in steps, and by this means the top was reached. * * *
Some curious marks were observed on the sides of some of these perpendicular rocks. At a distance they seemed as if they were the impress of some gigantic hands. I did not get very near these marks, but I believe that many of them have been formed by the water oozing out and trickling down the surface; they did not seem to be artificial; but a strange appearance is given to rocks by artificial means. Emperors and other great and rich men have had stones with large letters carved upon them let into or built in the face of the rocks. At a distance these have a most curious appearance. * * *
I now bid adieu to the famous Woo-e-shan, certainly the most wonderful collection of hills I ever behold."
He says further that some geologist who will visit the scene, may "give us some idea how these strange hills were formed, and at what period of the world's existence they assumed the strange shapes which are now presented to the traveller's wondering gaze."
Tea Leaves, 1900, was written by Francis Leggett & Co.