Pradip Baruah, who spends most of his time in the office and lab as chief advisory officer at the Tocklai Tea Research Institute (TRI) in Assam’s Jorhat, loves an adventure whenever the opportunity arises.
And in January this year, Baruah fulfilled one of his long-felt dreams on a walk into the jungles of Assam where he photographed an ancient wild forest of Camellia Assamica, a species of large-leaf tea distinct from China’s Camellia Sinensis, writes Don Bolton in an article published by Tea Journey.
An avid explorer, Baruah, who has a PhD in agricultural science, has hiked the jungles that rise above the great Brahmaputra River Valley for many years, documenting various cultivars and collecting specimens used in his work at Tocklai Tea Research Institute, claims Bolton.
His curiosity led him to the Old Doidam area of Tirap district in southeastern Arunachal Pradesh, which is India’s fifth largest tea producing region.
In Aeunachal Pradesh, Pradip Baruah, a tea researcher in Eastern India and an author, met with members of the Noktey tribe who demonstrated how they make Khelap, the native word for tea.
Nokteys are one of Aeunachal’s major tribes which include Daflas, Monpas, Adis, Akas, Apatanis, Mishmis, Nishis, Wangchu and Sherdukpens.
The tribal people of the region still rely on tea’s medicinal properties, an awareness that dates to Neolithic times.
The article quotes Baruah as saying: “It is dried in the sun and ground for storage above the fireplace. It smells very smoky and tastes bitter. They drink it from time to time.”
Tribal leaders later led tea explorer Baruah to an extensive area of large wild trees.
Baruah said: “This is the first ever report of wild trees in this area.” Baruah also found a few wild trees growing near Lamlo in Natun Kheti. Baruah said other probable areas of wild trees are Khonsa and Mishimi Hills, Miao of Arunachal Pradesh and Mon district of Nagaland along the Indio-Myanmar border.
Local tribesmen indicated the tea plants have existed in the wild since time immemorial, said Baruah adding: “I talked to the village elders and there is no knowledge of anyone planting here.”
The discovery of wild tea is significant because the international genomic study describes the origin of Camellia Assamica in Assam.
These tea plants could be the original Camellia Assamica (Master) tea plants, which grew wild in the forests of undivided Assam when the seven states of Northeast India – Assam, Nagaland, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Manipur – were under one umbrella.
Baruah also said tea plants, locally known as “Thing Pi”, are also found to be growing wild across the mountain ranges of Manipur. “The leaves from such trees are processed locally and brewed in a typical style for domestic consumption,” said Baruah.
“Based on the morphological characteristics, these tea plants could be the masters of the Assam tea race… further scientific study is required to ascertain the fact,” added them tea researcher.
There are 82 Camellia species of which Camellia sinensis (var. sinensis, var. assamica and var. lasiocalyx), are brewed as beverages.
Lasiocalyx, which is found in Cambodia, is primarily used for developing hybrids.
Tea plants in the tea plantations in Assam today are mostly cross-breeds of Sinensis and the Cambodia variety, pruned low to facilitate plucking.
The article quoted Baruah as saying: “Genetic studies reveal Assam tea to have a distinct genetic lineage from China tea, indicating that the origin of Assam tea is Assam itself and not introduced from China as predicted earlier.”
Baruah presented a research paper on the Biodiversity of Assam and Tea in 2016 at the Assam Agricultural University International Conference, where he cited genetic studies carried out by Muditha K. Meegahakumbura that were published in a prestigious international journal.
According to Meegahakumbura unlike southern Yunnan Assam tea (found near Xishuangbanna, Pu’er City), western Yunnan Assam tea (found near Lincang, Baoshan) shares many genetic similarities with India’s C. sinensis var. assamica.
So, western Yunnan Assam tea and Indian Assam tea both may have originated from the same parent plant in the area where southwestern China, Indo-Burma, and Tibet meet.
However, as the Assam tea shares no haplotypes with western Yunnan Assam tea, Indian Assam tea is likely to have originated from an independent domestication.
Pradip Baruah informed about his discovery of wild tea in a tweet on Jan 19, 2019.
Discovered extensive area of large wild teas at Old Doidam area of Tirap district of Arunachal Pradesh today. The area is inhabited by Noktey tribe people.This is the first ever report of discovery of wild teas in that area.Also found few wild tea plants at Lamlo of Natun Kheti. pic.twitter.com/Et00I4bGJI
— DR PRADIP BARUAH (@DRPRADIPBARUAH2) January 19, 2019
Historians suggested that Assam tea had been introduced from China, but the tea researchers say that the short breeding history of this tea in Assam made that unlikely.
As per the researchers, if the Chinese Assam and Indian Assam teas were from the same origin, they should have been genetically much more similar. These studies further supplement the fact that the Assam tea originated from Assam itself and genetically diverse from other types of tea.
Baruah has been quoted further: “There is a great future of producing specialty wild tea which has a big international market.”