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  • Postcards from Sri Lanka, Vol 2

    Very old tea plant at Monkeytail Gar

    Old Assamica tea plants originally planted by British planters in the 1880s.

    I left off the last post with a discussion about how Monkeytail Tea is a social enterprise by way of tea. I'm going to circle back to that in other installments, but for today I thought I'd spend some time talking about what makes the plants and the land at Monkeytail so special and unique.

    The tea plants at Monkeytail were originally planted by British planters about 120 years ago. All of the plants there were started by seed, not cuttings. Seed grown plants have a main tap root that goes straight down in the soil, which gives them access to water and nutrients at a much deeper level than cuttings, whose roots grow horizontally and have far less access to water and nutrients.

    I was really happy to see the two (not alive) plants below at the Ceylon Tea Museum which illustrate pretty clearly the difference between how cuttings grow and how seed grown plants grow. Both tea plants in the photos below are 80 years old.

    80 year old cloned tea bush
    80 year old seed grown tea plant

    80 year old plant grown from a cutting (left or top on mobile) and an 80 year old plant grown from seed (right or bottom on mobile) at the Ceylon Tea Museum.

    The tea plants at Monkeytail are primarly Camellia sinensis var assamica with about 600 Camellia sinensis var sinensis plants sprinkled about. The plants have quite a bit of room between them, which is nice for the roots and for the people plucking them. There are some new tea plants tucked in as well, but they don't really seem to be off by themselves in some cordoned off area set aside for the young ones.

    Everything is growing all together, and everything is plucked together. The old, the new, the big leaf, and the small leaf are all plucked without separating them into separate batches. That actually blew my mind a little bit as I'm such a puerh junky I couldn't believe that these really old, super healthy, biodiverse tea plants weren't picked separately and made into a tea marked as a higher value offering.

    The mix of primarily old assamica plants interspersed with some new assamica and some old sinensis plants is actually further diversified by way of all manner of non-tea growth as well. Growing freely among the tea plants are guava, cinnamon, coffee, pepper, vanilla, jackfruit, passionfruit, mango, banana, coconut, and many more types of plants that I didn't write down.

    Vanilla Plant at Monkeytail Tea
    Gorgeous compost at Monkeytail Tea

    Vanilla (left or top on mobile) and beautiful, rich Monkeytail compost (right or bottom on mobile).

    This level of biodiversity really is quite unusual. The gardens at Monkeytail were just an absolute riot of luxurious growth and abundance. The photo below illustrates what the conventional plantation model tea planting looks like. On some level, they're pretty, but when you know what's going on there in terms of plant and human health, they're really not very pretty at all.

    When I first got to Sri Lanka, I spent about four days just getting sorted out from the long journey there. I did a bit of sightseeing and just general poking around to get oriented. The only tea I could find to drink was corporate tea bag Ceylon black tea (I won't name names). It was so terrible, it actually began to make me sick after a couple of days. That kind of tea is grown all over the country at plantations that look just like the photo below. Monkeytail was my first real tea stop on my trip and their handmade tea from their gorgeous gardens put the Ceylon tea bag game to shame in a massive, undeniable way.

    I'll talk more in later posts about why the artisanal tea community in Sri Lanka is so deeply important, but for now I'm going to sign off. 

    Factory farmed tea at one of the big plantations in Sri Lanka

    Rows and rows of endless tea plants planted tightly together at large tea plantation with just a few shade trees thrown into the mix. Notice the ground - the soil there is having an erosion problem.

    Check out these related artisanal teas from Sri Lanka

    Forest Hill Handmade Wild Black Tea Rods
    Forest Hill Handmade Wild Black Tea Rods

    Forest Hill Handmade Wild Black Tea Rods

    Organic AMBA Estate Smoked Sri Lankan Black Tea
    Organic AMBA Estate Smoked Sri Lankan Black Tea

    Cinnamon Wood Smoked Tea from AMBA Estate (Organic)

    Organic Blue Butterfly Pea Flower and Lemongrass Herbal Tea from AMBA Estate
    Organic Blue Butterfly Pea Flower and Lemongrass Herbal Tea from AMBA Estate

    Organic Blue Butterfly Pea Flower and Lemongrass Herbal Tea from AMBA Estate

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