Tea’s Ancient Trees

The strong hand points to a ragged bag of leaves. Both the hand that points and the leaves that are pointed to are dried, dark and potent looking. The same muscular hands grab some of the leaves in question and force them into my hand urging me to smell, touch and somehow ‘know’ that what I have in before me is something special. The ‘pointer’, a woman, stands behind her table of wares – tea cakes, tea bricks, tea leaves, pickled tea and tea balls. Her face is broad and her eyes intense beneath an orange kerchief. As my nose descends to the green in my palm the woman’s forefinger again shoots to a spot high above and behind me and she utters the words ‘gu shu’, ancient trees. This is what I have come for, these ancient trees, or ancient tea trees to be exact.

In two hours, one of the tea world’s deities would come into focus – a tree that scientists (and perhaps more importantly locals’ tales) put at over a thousand years ‘young’.

Nannuo Mountain, in southern Yunnan’s Menghai County is a magic land of tea, with tea in tree, bush and every other conceivable form spreading its gorgeous taint far and wide. Known and renowned in the tea purist’s handbooks, teas from here constitute one of the ‘classic’ Puer tea homes. Puer can be simplified as the big leafed camellia sinensis assamica varietal, grown and produced in Yunnan, and sun and shade dried. An additional point, though it may seem neurotic to some, is that a real connoisseur will speak of ‘tai yang wei’ in Mandarin or ‘the smell of the sun’ upon the resultant dried leaves.

First, though, before any smells or sightings, I must leave the main Jinghong-Menghai road and climb into the deep forests. The tiny smoking huts of Ban Po village greet me on the way up. Serious tea towns have a kind of understated intensity about them – no doubt because they are fueled and fed on that most green of elixirs. Yellow piles of corn kernels mark out circles in the yards and small domed plastic covered huts (tea drying spaces) remain vacant.

Joining me is Ming Pei, a local, whose family own trees in the vicinity of the thousand-year old ancient green tea tree (or goddess) as I have come to think of it. When one visits these sanctuaries, having a local along is the equivalent of paying due respect to the land.

Winds here are muffled and almost soft with giant leaves sashaying to and fro. The path is well-worn though now few villagers harvest. It is late in the year and it is late in the season and though warm and dry the lush hills around me are blank of figures.

Ming Pei’s soft voice which seems to suit the soft mountains tells of how the village shares the vast forests of tea trees around us, though families also own their own mini-plots from which they and they alone can harvest.

Tea trees are not gracious and subtle beauties; no arching smooth branches, but rather stout, wide and muscular – functional and workman-like rather than aesthetic masterpieces. What is harvested however, is, in many minds (mine being one of them) masterpieces of sharp bitter delights. The older the trees, the more subtle the delights and in the words of locals, “those that can distinguish the soft under the bitter are worthy of drinking ‘gu shu cha’ (tea from old trees)”.

Fifteen-hundred meters and we continue along the path heading up further still. Here warmth has given way to shaded cool drafts that saunter through the deepening forests. The forests themselves are beginning to envelope Ming and I and part of that envelopment is the tea trees themselves.

“No tea trees in this area are less than four hundred years old”. There are moments in life where things convene, things, sensations and feelings that lead one to believe in paradises. This moment is one. The light wind, ancient tea trees that still produce nectars from the earth, the smell of green and a sun that peaks through the foliage in small beams all contribute to this….of course there is a thirst building in the back of my throat which is verging on desperate.

We arrive to the ancient at long last. Powerful and wide there is not one dainty thing on the tree. An aged dilapidated fence lies forlorn around the tree as though put up for a forgotten reason.

Off to the side, a small nimble woman with wide eyes and crisp movements beckons. She carries a kettle half the size of her own body, somehow scurrying, managing the kettle and beckoning to me all at once. My fantasy of tea will come true.
Minutes later a surge of bitter tea is funneled down into me in rapid shots.
Deelee, my new hostess, assures me with a glance to Ming that Puer tea should be served fresh (this seasons ideally – which is autumn’s harvest), green and hot…and as if to push home a point she adds “in huge daily amounts”.
Old tea tree tea is valued for its taste, complexities and soft finish. Here on the top of Nannuo Mountain there is little ceremony, little unnecessary chatter, lesser still adjectives to describe the tea and moment…there is though a huge appreciation for this little time of tea and the time we have taken ‘to take the time’.

7 Responses to Tea’s Ancient Trees

  1. marilena says:

    Wonderful words and videos…really makes one wish to be there. Curious as to the quantity of tea leaves used in the brew…to my novice eyes it seems like a lot…is that because of the type?

    • Jeff says:

      In the tea obsessed south, the informal rule is to use more leaves, and steep for less time – minimum time for maximum ‘fullness’ of taste. Usually in China the rule of thumb is 6-8 grams of tea for a serving (which may well be infused a dozen or more times) gradually increasing the infusion time. One of the most understated but clear pieces of information on serving Puer/Pu’erh I’ve ever heard was “start off with the basics of 6-8 grams, fully boiled water and then play around and let the tongue decide”.

  2. Suzanne says:

    This lovely article made me feel that I was right there amidst the ancient tea trees. I’m enjoying these articles and also “letting the tongue decide” on what is the perfect brew! I’m looking forward to the next tea article from Jeff Fuchs.

  3. Noelle Kehrley says:

    These trees are absolutely beautiful. I am thoroughly enjoying such a private view into the world of my own personal addiction to tea. Keep up the good work, can’t wait for the next article.

  4. Dillian says:

    I love reading these arctiles because they’re short but informative.

  5. Howard Diner says:

    Thanks for the informative article. The tea planted by French Missionaries were they from these old trees or another type?