Tea Leaves Book- 6

CHAPTER IV.
 
Characteristics Of The Tea Plant.
 
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."

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