According to Chinese literature tea was discovered by Shen Nong the herbalist. He was boiling his drinking water when leaves from a nearby tea plant blew in the cauldron. He tasted the resulting brew, and the beverage of tea was born.
As one of the most popular beverages in the world, tea has a long history and has become an integral part of many cultures, especially in Asia countries like China and Japan.
Species in the Forest of Tea Trees
Camellia sinensis is the species of plant whose leaves and buds are used to produce the popular beverage tea. It is of the genus Camellia (Chinese: 茶花; pinyin: Cháhuā, literally: "tea flower"), a genus of flowering plants in the family Theaceae. As the main components in a forest of tea trees, those plants are mainly cultivated in tropical and sub-tropical climates with a minimum annual rainfall of 45 to 50 inches (1,140 to 1,270 ml) – areas that are also home to other sub-tropical plants which contribute to the biodiversity of the tea forest.
Tea plants are tending to grow in mountain area with no convenient routes to the outside world. So, most tea plantations in Yunnan are intensive monocultures and lack biodiversity. Thus the development of tea plant heavily relies on external factors. Biologically, monoculture plantation is also vulnerable to attack by pests as they lack the biological diversity.
In modern tea plantation, combining tea plants and other tree species in tea gardens is a good way to deal with this problem. The intercropping system allows tea farmers to plant various fruit trees, timber or multi-purpose trees with tea plants together, such as Bi LuoChun.
Mixed Plantations and Biodiversity in Tea Gardens
The common species of trees for mixed plantation in tea gardens are albizzia, cassias, alder and camphor. Except for benefiting tea trees, those trees also provide firewood for daily using for the local communities (the majority of tea growers are farmer living nearby).
What’s more, mixed plantation can improve the ecology in the gardens by: helping conserve water and decrease soil erosion, increasing organic soil matter, suppressing weeds and pests, and providing shade, especially during droughts and dry seasons.
Ancient Tea Forest in Mangjing Village, Yunnan
Before the intercropping system was invented, our ancients used another way to harmonize tea production in their gardens with conservation of ecosystems – plant a massive amount of tea trees to build a tea forest. In Mangjing Villiage, Yunnanprovince, we found an ancient forest of tea trees. Mangjing is inhabited by the Bulang people who live in amongst China’s tropical and sub-tropical humid forests at an altitude of about 1,500-2,300 meters. The history of cultivating teas in this village can be traced back to many generations ago. In fact, the oldest tea tree in Mangjing is thought to be 1,300 years old. To pick tea leaves from this and other tall trees, local people need to climb very high.
In a study by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, scientists identified 15 rare and endangered plant species in the tea forests in Mangjing, which are difficult to find even in natural forests. Based on a sampling survey, 244 species were found there, comparable to the number of species found in primeval forests nearby.
Tea is More Than Just A Drink
For the Bulang people, the tea forests passed down over generations are part of their traditional culture. Tea is more than just a drink here. The oldest tea tree in each family plot in the tea forests is worshiped as the crutch for a family’s livelihood. The Bulang people regard tea gardens as a symbol of industry. Those who have no gardens are lazy. Tea cultivation is encouraged. Tea is also used as herb and medicine and become an essential part of their daily life.
Bulang tea, produced without polluting fertilizers and pesticides, depends on forest ecosystem services such as nutrient recycling and pest regulation. Not surprisingly, local pu-erh tea from tea forests is high quality and highly valued in the wider Chinese market.
As a result, the tea forests have become an even more important source of income and, nowadays, an eco-tourism attraction. In dealing with this trend, Mangjing Village has formulated rules for protection of tea forests and begun efforts to strengthen traditional culture and promote conservation of tea forests.