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The Tea Plant
After water, tea is the most popular beverage on the planet. The tea plant’s scientific name is Camellia sinensis and its related to the Camellia japonica, a familiar tree or shrub. Grown best in tropical and subtropical climates with abundant rainfall and rich soil, the tea plant can grow to heights of 30 feet if left unpruned. Tea plants or bushes are usually maintained or pruned back to three-five feet. This height allows for convenient plucking of tender tea leaves. Pruning also stimulates the growth of new young leaves or flush. If properly cultivated, tea bushes can have a productive life span exceeding 100 years.
All teas originate from one of two important subspecies, either the Assam type (assamica) or China type (sinensis). Grown in India, Sri Lanka and in other parts of the world, the Assam type tea produces large, strong tasting leaves. The China tea type, cultivated in China, Taiwan, Japan and parts of Darjeeling, yields a more delicate tea with smaller leaves.
Climate and geographic location, including the altitude and soil, all play a role in determining the quality of tea. The plant flourishes at altitudes between 2000 and 6500 feet. The finest quality teas grow at higher elevations where the cool climate slows growth, allowing more concentrated flavors to develop in the leaves. However, many good teas also grow at low elevations near sea level. The tea industry uses generations of vegetative propagation and leaf cuttings from the best plants to clone productive bushes that yield superior tasting tea.