An Update on the Boys

In a post from February, I noted that I’d become a proud father of two tea plants.  At that time I promised an update sometime in the future.  Well, now that the li’l tykes are 6 months old (and because there’s been some talk on Twitter and various tea-related forums about tea propagation), it’s time for that update!

As a reminder, here’s what they looked like in February 2009:
The Boys, February 2009

And now, in August 2009:
The Boys, August 2009

I’ve decided to call them Laurel and Hardy…for the obvious reasons.  And these guys are a great example of two things in the tea industry.

First, they show why so many cultivated tea plants are taken from cuttings rather than seed.  Since good old L&H here were both from seeds of the same plant, you’d think they’d be more similar.  However, Camellia sinensis is one of those plants that has a lot of variation when there is sexual reproduction, and one that can’t effectively self-pollinate.  Now, I don’t know who the father is (or “fathers are”).  I’ve got another tea plant but I don’t think it bloomed that year; I’ve got a Camellia japonica in the front yard, but I’m not sure if cross-species pollination can occur within the genus Camellia.  If it works like horses and donkeys, my two kids could be mules…and possibly sterile.  But I’m not yet clear on how the genetics works with the tea plant.

With two clearly different plants coming from seed of the same mother plant, you can see why tea farmers would want to plant cuttings rather than seeds if they find a plant that does what they want.  If the farmer plants seeds, who knows what they’ll get?  But if they plant cuttings, they’re making a clone of the parent bush…ensuring a consistent and predictable crop.

The other thing this illustrates is how new cultivars come about.  While cuttings result in the predictability of clones, sexual reproduction produces lots of variation—like Laurel and Hardy.  If one of the freaky, doesn’t-look-like-Mom kids has some new quality that benefits the farmer—like producing a sweeter-tasting tea, or resisting pesky bugs, or more easily surviving bad weather—then the kid may get cloned, or selectively cross-pollinated with other plants.  Eventually, when the genetics settle down, you’ve got a new cultivar (short for “cultivated variety”).

For now, I’ll just let ’em have their childhood until they grow up and get to work producing leaves for me.  But maybe I’ll be able to develop my own Tea Geek cultivar in the next 10 years or so.

8 thoughts on “An Update on the Boys”

  1. That’s so very interesting!!

    If your Laurel and Hardy (heh) are the result of cross-pollination by your C. japonica, might they still be capable of producing leaves that are suitable for tea, do you think?

  2. It’s possible. I’ve heard that other Camellia species have been used to create a beverage. I’ve not heard of japonica being one of them, but you never know. I guess I’ll just have to try…after checking whether the Camellias have any toxicity issues…

  3. Awesome, glad to see they’re doing well!

    I really ought to get a plant of my own, after my success with a container garden on my deck.

  4. What a beautiful little story about the birth of two love-child seedlings. It does reveal more about where tea comes from. It seems to explain why there’s variation from bush to bush and single-bush teas can be known for their unique virtues. I’ve thought before (and this confirms it) that individual tea plants have their own personalities, just like animals do for everyone who’s grown up out in the country or has owned pets. –Spirituality of Tea

  5. Your plants look assamic, with larger, broader, glossy leaves. Of course, floral morphology (Wight, 1962) is a more reliable basis for taxonomy…

    Regarding your hybridization:
    “A successful hybridization between C. sinensis and C. japonica, a native in China and Japan, has been reported by Bezbaruah and Gogoi (1972). In growing habit, leaf and growth characteristics the hybrid is an intermediate between the two parents, but its yield and quality are low. In general, introgression and hybridization with species of Camellia other than those having attributes to produce and acceptable quality of tea have not been encouraging. However, there are exceptions. For example, F1 hybrids from C. irrawadiensis x C. assamica Shen crossed with Assam-China hybrids (TV2) produced a highly productive clone (TV 24 in Assam) (Bezbaruah, 1987).”
    B. Banerjee, in Willson and Clifford (1992).

  6. Yeah, I assumed assamica (or assamica-based hybrid, at least) not only because of the leaves but because of the climate–I understand that assamica is less finicky about climate and supposedly my plants are a cultivar that’s suited to Seattle-area weather. Since we’re at the outside edge of C.sinensis’ range, it seems like a more resilient stock would make more sense.

    As for taxonomy, it also depends on which system of taxonomy you want to use. After all, morphological taxonomy is just so much arbitrary judgment. I’d rather see a taxonomy based on genetic markers so that there’s no ambiguity or judgment involved.

    Re: hybridization–Excellent! I’m still waiting for my copy of Willson & Clifford. It’s been 6 months now. Time to follow up again, I guess.

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