Tea Travel in Yunnan Part 2: Tea Habitats

Amongst the tea connoisseurs in the west who are dabbling in puer, the famous tea of Yunnan, we hear lots of phrases that conjure vague and misty understandings of far-away places — “gushu” … “ancient tree” … “old forest” … but what does this all mean?

I will admit that I only had the most basic understanding of tea habitats before this trip. I knew there were plantations, which included rows of tea bushes pruned to an easy, waist-high pick table, and there were more natural habitats. What I didn’t understand until I was on the ground was how nuanced each of these broad categories was. Plantation could include high-volume multi-acre operations with multiple harvests per year and dozens of rounds of applications of chemical fertilizers and pesticides or small-scale gardens with one harvest per spring and only the application of natural fertilizers. Forest habitats could include a diversity of environments including a managed “plantation” of older trees with little else growing near them, a more biodiverse environment of tea trees growing in concert with other plants, vines, bushes, and trees, or even fully wild rainforest habitats where tea trees were only a very small percentage of the overall biomass.

Let me take you on a tour of the several distinct tea environments I traversed in my travels.

Sustainable Plantation

Sustainable plantations are harvested once per year and do not use any chemical fertilizers or pesticides. They are often planted, however, with a higher yield cultivar. Bushes were plants in ease-to-traverse rows. At Yin Sheng Manor outside of Simao, Professo Hou’s tea garden and tea school, they chose a hardy and higher-yield #10 Yunnan varietal. You can see in the photos the clusters of plump buds ready to pick!

Old Tree Garden

This Imperial Tea Garden outside of Simao was an interesting study. Many trees were between 100-300 years old. However, they were planted very close together and many were suffering and dying after being overpicked during the puer boom of the 2000s. Professor Hou helped us interpret the signs of trouble, such as excessively small leaves, drying and decaying outer branches. He showed us how the garden’s caretakers were attempting to rehabilitate trees through natural fertilization, selective tree clearing, and smaller harvests. Old tree gardens or similar habitats usually include the showcasing of a “queen” and “king” tree, usually the oldest or the best-showing trees in the area. Bud sets are further apart and less plentiful in gardens like this, making harvesting more challenging and requiring much more skill.

Managed Forest Habitat

On Nannou Mountain in Menghai County, we visited a managed tea forest. This habitat included tea trees ranging between 100-300 years old planted under the mottled shade of larger trees. Running creeks meandered down the hillside around us. We followed a groomed trail, including a dramatic boardwalk, for most of the trip. Large debris, including fallen trees, were removed from the areas, The trees in this forest were spaced well apart but did not exhibit any significant co-planting. The voices and laughter of tea pickers echoed throughout the hillside as we walked, many of whom employed the use of ladders to reach in to the tea trees to reach bud sets.

The queen and king trees were both set behind fences in this forest and denoted with signage. We passed several groups of tourists in this mountain out enjoying the scenery and possibly making small purchases of their own from nearby Banpo Village.

Biodiverse Forest Habitat

After visiting Nannou, we traveled to Jingmai Mountain and witnessed a very different type of ancient tea tree forest. This forest was managed by Bulang peoples, whose connection to land and especially tea trees is integral to their worldview. The tea forest on Jingmai mountain was incredibly biodiverse. Tea trees grew in symbiosis with dozens of different plants, vines, lichens, and mosses many of which had medicinal values and/or provided nutritive value or other beneficial flavors to the resulting tea. There were no built structures, nearby residences, or even paved roads anywhere near these forests. This was still a managed environment. However, the Bulang caretakers never took away any fallen wood or natural debris from the forest. All leaves and other debris were allowed to naturally decompose near wherever they had fallen.

Wild Rainforest Habitat

The completely wild rainforest environment is perhaps the most elusive and least likely habitat from which to ever receive processed tea. Through the granting of special permission, the group I traveled with was able to gain access to an extremely protected high mountain rainforest habitat in the Ai Lao mountains outside of JingDong. Admittedly, this was one of my most anticipated adventures of the trip and the hike and scenery did not disappoint.

In this environment, towering ancient tea trees dotted the landscape along with acacias and dozens of other trees, flowers, and animals. A beautiful mountain stream meandered through the forest resulting in dramatic waterfalls we saw earlier in the hike. The adventure culminated in the viewing of a 2700 year old tea tree, to which we were escorted by one of the park rangers who were on duty to guard against poaching of plants and animals from this sensitive habitat.

Conclusion

I understand now why it’s not enough to hear that a puer tea comes from an “old tree forest.” There is a lot of nuance that goes in to how the forest and trees are managed. How close are nearby residences? Are visitors allowed regularly in the habitat? How is the habitat managed — or not managed? What is the harvesting philosophy? In the end, developing a trusted relationship with your tea vendor and ensuring they understand their supply chain and how that affects the land will ensure we all get access to truly sustainable tea.