Varieties, Cultivars, Clones–oh, my!

Botanical illustration: Camellia sinensis
Botanical illustration: Camellia sinensis

I was recently asked by several people (Naomi Rosen, Gary Robson, Geoffrey Norman, Jen Piccotti, with accuracy review from Nigel Melican and of course some small amount of mocking from Robert Godden about my speed of posting new well-researched content) to do a blog post about the difference between words that describe different types or kinds of tea plant. Because I can’t disappoint my fans—and because it’s been so long since my last blog post—here is that article.

Before we get into the details, let’s get warmed up with what we mean by “the tea plant.” That would be Camellia sinensis. As you may remember from your first biology class in school, the Latin name of plants and animals are made of two (bi-) names (nomen) in a system known as binomial nomenclature. The first name is the larger category: the genus. The second is a subdivision of the genus: the species. Therefore, the tea plant is in the genus Camellia, and is more specifically the Chinese species (since “sinensis” refers to things Chinese).

As you may also remember from biology class, there are larger categories like “phyllum” and “family” and so forth, but we can ignore those for the purposes of this article. We’re interested in the smaller ones. The next smaller category is the variety. In botany, varieties are all members of a species that have some physical characteristics that distinguish them from one another, but that aren’t so different that they’d be considered a different species. In dogs, we might call this a “breed” and in humans we might call it “race” but the basic concept is the same with plants—still the same species, but with differentiating physical characteristics, and ones that typically developed in different geographic regions.

Different botanical classification systems deal with the tea plant differently. Most often in the tea industry, though, we see two varieties mentioned: sinensis and assamica. But it’s not really that simple. As mentioned in Tea: Cultivation to consumption (K.C. Willson & M.N. Clifford, 1992), “Tea is a heterogenous plant with many overlapping morphological, biochemical and physiological attributes.” In other words, there is some discussion about whether there are more or fewer botanical varieties than this and how that variation should be classified. Some suggest that Camellia sinensis var. sinensis and Camellia sinensis var. assamica were always, or have become, so interbred that they simply represent extremes of the natural variation in Camellia sinensis and therefore have no distinct varieties. Others suggest different breakdowns based on different features. In these other proposed classifications, you might see at the variety level: “lasiocalyx,” “irrawadiensis,” “Cambodiensis,” “sasanqua,” “bohea,” “parviflora” or “macrophylla.” Some even take the variety name and use it as the species, as in Camellia assamica.

All that said, the most common scientific or botanical way of classifying the tea plant is
Genus: Camellia
Species: sinensis
Variety: sinensis or assamica

Now we come to the word “varietal,” which Tony Gebely addressed recently on his blog. It basically boils down to simple grammar. “Variety” is a noun, and “varietal” is an adjective. Therefore, if someone says that a certain tea is “made from a varietal developed in…” they’re making the same grammatical error as if you said, “This is my book of grammatical” rather than “book of grammar.” Note that the ending -al is the same in both cases, as that’s a common adjectival (there it is again!) ending. Correct usage of these terms would be something like, “This tea was made from a variety developed in…” and “Its varietal characteristics include…”

Another quick summary then:
Variety (n.) a particular type of plant
Varietal (adj.) of or about a variety

Now there’s two last things to cover: cultivar and clone/clonal (yes, it’s the same grammar—noun and adjective). For this, we need to talk about sex a little. As you probably know, sexual reproduction results in offspring that often take on characteristics of both parents. For the tea plant, sex consists of pollinators taking pollen from one plant and applying it to the flowers of another plant. In nature, that’s often done by insects, but with plants used in human agriculture, it can be humans that, well, perform this crucial sexual act for the plants. When tea plants have sex, their offspring are the plants that grow from the seeds that get produced. Tea plants, though, have a really wide range of variability when they make seeds. The same pair of plants could produce seeds that seem like they were maybe the milkman’s kids—extremely different from the parents.

Tea Cultivar Comparisons
Tea Cultivar Comparisons

This variability makes it difficult for farmers to produce a consistent agricultural product. If things like yield, drought tolerance, pest susceptibility, quality, and so forth are hugely different from plant to plant throughout the field, it makes the farmer’s life much harder. With this type of plant, when used in agriculture, asexual reproduction methods are often used. Techniques such as cuttings, grafts, and division are common ways of making more plants without the use of seeds. They also all produce “children” that are genetically identical to the “parent.” I put those terms in quotes because although the tea industry likes to talk about the “mother plant” and so forth, they are in a very real sense simply multiple copies of the same plant. The technical term for this is a clone. It’s basically making identical twins, reliably, over and over again. A clonal variety, then, isn’t the same as the “variety” above—it’s simply referring to the whole group of genetically identical plants kept pure by vegetative propagation. If you really want to get deep into tea agriculture, you get to start learning the secret code numbers for distinct clones such as BB35, TRI/68, and TV17, for example, each known for a specific set of characteristics that a farmer could chose based on his or her needs.

And this brings us to the word “cultivar.” The word is usually described as being a portmanteau of “cultivated variety” although if you want to go deeper down that rabbit-hole, the first part might also come from “cultigen” which I won’t talk more about for sanity’s sake. Cultivars are essentially the plants that have been selected by humans to cultivate. Although there’s a registry for plant cultivars, it’s not really tied to particular biological/botanical nomenclature. It’s tied to how humans use it.

When new cultivars are developed, it’s usually through sexual reproduction. Botanists take plants with some qualities they like, breed them, and see what qualities the genetic lottery gives the kids. When they find an offspring plant that’s different and useful enough, they make cuttings for several “generations” to make sure no weird variations that they don’t want will pop up. Once that has been determined, they usually then only propagate the plant asexually so as to maintain the new clonal features. However, if a particular group of plants seem to be able to maintain the desired characteristics through seed, a sexually propagated cultivar can exist, too. It’s just less common with the tea plant in particular because of that tendency of producing lots of very different plants when seed is used.

Not so difficult…except that always more complicated than you think. There’s a slight wrinkle in that not everyone in the full breadth of the tea industry use the words in the same way. While “variety” the way I described it above is true from a scientific/botanical standpoint, that’s not how the word is typically used in the industry, since most of the people in the industry aren’t scientists. If you take out both the scientists and the farmers, most of the rest of the people use the word “variety” to refer to the cultivar (as described above). So you hear tea “experts” and tea shop owners talk about the variety (or, if they make the grammatical error, the varietal) that a particular tea is made from.

Then comes the farmers. The group of human-selected-for-agriculture plants which the scientists are calling a cultivar and industry folks are calling variety has yet another word that’s used by English-speaking tea growers: Jat. This is a term that comes from India (where the first English-speaking tea growers did their thing) and means, as far as I can discern, something akin to “tribe.” So we might give that a summary as cultivar (botany) = jat (producers) = variety (general industry).

So there you go. Aren’t you glad you asked?

Variety is a sub-category of species; varietal is the adjective form of variety. A tea clone is a type of plant that has been propagated through cuttings. A cultivar is a ‘cultivated variety’ and in theory could be either a clone, or a plants produced through seed, but is a term used from a human-use standpoint, not a biological one. Though they are properly called cultivars, many tea producers use the word jat, and the general industry calls them varieties (a different meaning from the species sub-category that started this paragraph).