At about 2400 meters above sea level, we followed Mr. Li, climbing high up into the mountains and spring mist to his family’s grove of wild yabao trees: a mountainside forest of Camellia crassicolumna.
Camellia crassicolumna is a near-relative of tea, growing wild in Qianjiazhai. Locals, like the Li Family, call the tea “ye sheng (wild) yabao,” and have been picking and finishing the leaves just like tea for as long as anyone can remember. Though the wild tea has recently become a threatened species, Mr. Li is at the forefront of helping these trees make a come back.
In addition to being a tea farmer and a member of the Zhenyuan Dongsa Farmers’ Cooperative, Mr. Li is also one of the ecological preservation officers of the Mt. Ailao National Forest Preserve. His dedication to Qianjiazhai’s local wild tea near-relative – Camellia crassicolumna – is a duty not taken lightly. While working to protect the wild parts of the preserve from poachers and illegal foraging, Mr. Li is at the forefront of conservation in action, working with his family and neighbors to reestablish a sustainable crassicolumna population. His family’s work cutting, replanting, and protecting new cultivated crassicolumna is no small part of the effort that will hopefully bring the species back from the threat of extinction.
In the video interview above, Mr. Li and Mr. Zhou introduce us the Li Family’s groves of Camellia crassicolumna tea tree groves, filled with a mix of wildly propagated individuals right alongside cultivated crassicolumna trees.
In 2016, reporter Shao Hongyan also visited the Li Family’s wild tea tree groves, sharing photos and insights in an article he wrote for Xinghai Publications. We have translated an excerpt of this article to share with you below.
The Ailao National Forest Preserve encompasses Jing Dong Shan and Zhenyuan, and is home to Qianiazhai’s 2700 year old “King of Tea” tea trees. The preserve is considered the ancestral home of tea. This stretch of old trees covers forty thousand mu. The oldest local people in this area have always picked the wild tea trees to make Crassicolumna tea. They know well enough to pick out which trees will yield bitter tea and which will be sweet.
The oldest members of the village remember picking out the trees with the sweetest best leaves and transplanting them closer to the village where they could be domesticated. The villagers learned that they could graft branches from the wild trees onto their own old tea trees growing nearby. These grafted crassicolumna and assamica trees yield more plump and tender buds, which in turn produce more sweet and aromatic tea.
Locals call this ‘wild tea.’ In their experience, although the labor to make tea in this way was burdensome, the finished tea was truly unique.
After Ailaoshan was established as an ecological preserve, ChuXiong Zhou and Jingdong County and Lu Shan Village became the heart of Crassicolumna’s transformation. Rather than picking from protected ancient trees in the Ailaoshan preserve, the area undertook a concerted program of lawful breeding by grafting Crassicolumna wild tea onto their younger (assamica) tea trees 100+ years old already cultivated in their tea groves. This unique sustainable practice is seen almost nowhere else in Yunnan.
In October of 2016, I [sic: author Shao Hongyan] had the pleasure to visit the home of Mr. Li, one of Ailaoshan’s environmental conservation officers. I had the privilege to drink wild tea he picked himself. It had the astringent intensity that the locals describe, unlike any other so-called wild tea I had tasted before. To me it tasted like original wild tea, full of an ancestral and true wild taste that left a deep impression on my palate.
Mr Li brought me to the wild tea tree groves at the edge of the nature preserve. This area was very clearly part of the designated legal picking region. A wire fence seperated it from the protected area, where people are not allowed to enter or pick.
I was in awe of the natural beauty here! Young and ancient, tall and short, wild tea trees were scattered over a thousand mu. Some were grafted; some were transplanted. This was a moving “kingdom” of wild tea trees.
Officer Li said: “Nobody used to pick this wild tea. The price of the old tree (Camellia var. assamica) tea was so much higher; there was no reason to pick here. Some people picked to mix it in with assamica tea, but now things have changed. The price of our crassicolumna wild tea has skyrocketed. It has become the new love of the markets. We certainly didn’t see that coming.”
Translated by David Duckler from “Wild Tea 2.0” // <<普洱景东花山：野生茶2.0初探>> (Shao Hongyan, Xinghai Publications, 2016-11-16).
Photos credit to Shao Hongyan, as noted.
All other photo credit to Verdant Tea, as noted.
Visiting the Li Family & their crassicolumna tea tree grove, Shao Hongyan writes: “I was in awe of the natural beauty here! Young and ancient, tall and short, wild tea trees were scattered over a thousand mu. Some were grafted; some were transplanted. This was a moving “kingdom” of wild tea trees…”