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Archive → July, 2012

Tea Road Learning Journeys 1: The Ancient Tea Trees of Nannuo Shan

 

Nannuo Shan and the King of Ancient Tea Trees

Nannuo Shan and the King of Tea Trees.

 

Nannuo Mountain is approximately 1,400 metres above sea level. There are many Hani villages scattered throughout Nannuo. In addition to the groves of ancient tea trees there are also rubber plantations. There is also still a considerable amount of natural rainforest.

Today (8th June 2012) I visited Nannuo Mountain to see the groves of ancient tea trees. Nannuo is in Menghai County, just about one hours’ drive from Jinghong (approximately 30 km). It sits at an average altitude of 1,400 metres. Nannuo is well known for its long history of tea growing, well over a thousand years. The local people are Hani (哈尼) (in fact they are officially classified as Aini 爱尼族, a branch of the Hani). They have their own language and distinct culture. I did plan to visit a local Hani cultural exhibition but the curator was ill and the exhibition closed.

With the owner of the King of the Ancient Tea Trees, Mr Kai.

The main attraction at Nannuo are the groves of ancient tea trees (the product of which in Chinese is known as both ‘ancient tea tree tea’ (古树茶) and ‘qiaomu tea’ (乔木茶)). These trees produce some of the best puer tea. There are approximately 15,000 muof ancient tea tree groves belonging to a number of different villages (here ‘village’ refers to an administrative entity made up of several ‘natural villages’). Unlike your average plantation variety of tea (台地茶) which is grown and harvested regularly to maintain a ‘hedge’ shape, the tea trees in Nannuo  are left to grow freely in true ‘tree’ form, with minimal pruning to encourage new leaf growth. The average tree will produce about three kilograms of tea leaves per year, much less than the hedge style plantation variety. But the price of the former far exceeds the latter, thus making these trees very valuable and a major source of income for the locals.

A good way to judge if a plant is being treated organically is to look closely at the leaves. As is the case here the leaves should appear to be home to insects, moss and lichen, none of which will survive pesticides very well. Of course true organic certification also entails independent laboratory testing, but this is quite rare in the Chinese tea industry.

The most famous specimen, the so-called ‘King of the Ancient Tea Trees’ (古茶树王), is aged at over 800 years old and itself has become a major international tourist attraction. The site is still a bit difficult to access as it involves a hike of about three kilometres through rainforest and tea tree groves from the nearest village. This tree is also often cited as evidence that Xishuangbanna/Menghai is the origin of tea cultivation (and another ancient tree that tragically was destroyed in a storm in 1967 and later aged at 1,700 thousand years).

The first harvest of tea leaves took place about two months ago. Pictured here is the second round of growth which is currently being harvested. The output over the last year has dropped significantly due to drought.

The trees are treated completely organically, in line with hundreds of years of local farming tradition. Such ancient tea trees have become extremely valuable as the tea they produce can attract a very high market price. And yet it was only thirty years ago that some Chinese tea experts advised removing these trees and replacing them with conventional tea hedges (台地茶) or rubber trees. In any case the trees fortunate enough to have survived the early stages of ‘reform and openness’ are now well protected with a new ‘Ancient Tea Tree Protection Law’ issued last year.

On the left is ancient tea tree tea aged for five years (2007). On the right tea that has been only recently processed (2012). The market price for the former is approximately AUD$100 for 500 grams whilst the latter is going for AUD$30. You can thus see that the price of the tea increases dramatically with age, this is one of the virtues of good quality puer tea.