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).

23 thoughts on “Varieties, Cultivars, Clones–oh, my!”

  1. A certain amount of mocking is necessary, surely?
    That aside, a well-researched and enjoyable read, and if you could force people to read it, understand it and implement your detailed and specific instructions then you would have contributed much to the cause of humanity.
    Of course, they won’t. Proof of this is the fact that the word ‘methodology” which means ‘a study of methods’ is misused approximately 100% of the time you see it. And no-one has ever thanked me for correcting them.
    Michael, you come from a country where the (previous) President is unaware of the word “detention’ (“detainment’ FFS?) and I recently personally heard some gems like ‘de-plane’ and ‘de-train’ (it’s ‘disembark, you morons) and – wait for it – “sunsetted’ . Oh yes, indeed.
    So you need to consider this : are you wasting your time, when the majority of your audience comes from a country where people are happy to say “pre-onboarding”.
    I’m with you – yes, I too used to get beaten up at school for correcting people’s grammar. (Usually the teachers).
    But trying to correct the vast majority of people out there is futile.
    You’ve only got to count the amount of “Chai tea” available at any supermarket to prove this.

  2. Mahalo for the explanation. I know this is a subject that even researchers at the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources have trouble understanding. Even among the cultivars there are many varieties. When they do variety trials all the varieties get mixed up from seed, which is why once you find the exact variety that you want you have to take clones. The most important thing for a grower is that they promote the growth of the right varieties for their terroir. This is why they discourage the importing of seeds from China and Japan, try to find tea cuttings from a local source.

    There is one major advantage of growing from seed, it has a very strong root system and is younger in age so it can have more productive yields. Farmers must find the balance.

  3. Wow, I am so excited you have written a new post. I admit I haven’t it yet but I will tonight. The blog post requires no distraction from children, TV, Text, E-Mails, and more. Now to decide which tea to drink while I read this new post.

  4. Great write-up, Michael.

    You were the first one that brought the word “cultivar” to my attention. Since then, not sure how, “varietal” entered my lexicon…and I used it interchangeably with cultivar. While – technically – cultivar and vari”tea” combined into “cultivated variety” might be looked upon as a redundancy…it’s good to further justify the use of both in their correct contexts.

    Cultivar = HYOOOMIN involvement; variety = Nature; Jat = Weird Indian word.

    So…who wants to break it to the wine folks that they’re using “varietal” wrong?


  5. Excellent post; I would add in though that tea encompasses a wide variety of differences: there are shrubs, semi-arboreal trees and tall, arboreal trees. Cultivars can include large leaf, small leaf types; early growth, late growth varieties, etc. Then there are wild, semi-wild, cultivated, old-growth varieties. All of these make up for the wide variety and complexity that is tea — which, along with the tea maker’s skill, makes up for the myriad flavor and aroma profiles in your cup.

  6. Why yes, as a matter of fact, I am glad I asked.

    I like the way you cover something this complex without being condescending about it. This is the kind of article that I’ll direct other people to without worrying about scaring them off.

    My only regret is that I read it late at night when my brain is fuzzy and I don’t want to caffeinate it. I think I’ll re-read this tomorrow. Perhaps I’ll have a cup of “chai tea” with it — just to annoy Robert.

  7. Thank you!!! Makes so much more sense now. And yes, I was totally using the term varietal incorrectly. I need to read this at least two or three more times to get it through my head. Now….what topic to beg you to write about next???

  8. Great read Michael, thanks for sorting out this kind of info for the rest of us! I’ve learned lots of things I didn’t know before.

  9. Gary, I’m in favor of annoying Robert, but I’m afraid “chai tea” annoys me as well. 🙂 The bit that won’t stick in my head, though, is whether the proper Hindi grammar puts the “masala” before or after the “chai.”

    Thanks for the article request, too, and I’m glad you like the result!

  10. So if you are using “variety” to refer to the assamica vs. sinensis level, we should have no opportunity to (mis)use the word “varietal,” given that we non-scientists are always talking about characteristics at the cultivar level. “Cultivarietal,” anyone? “Cultivarial?”

    I’m happy to accept “variety” as akin to “cultivar.” I prefer “subspecies” at the upper level, and I imagine there are subordinate groups with traits that have been naturally and not artificially selected, for which “cultivar” would be inappropriate. But let me finish reading the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants ( and get back to you.

  11. I agree about the applied simplicity with humility. Thank you, I have over 30 years drifted from being an enthusiastic tea afficianado to being a tea merchant; and now to being a nivice farmer. So you helped clear up confusion for me. I have the added baggage of having majored in English and I discerned that “varietal” was being abused but could not quite tell why. I will not correct others but this will help me correct myself and when others need teaching I will refer them to this article.
    Jat was the one term I was currently searching out, by the way. It was thrown at me once as jargon as if “all growers know that term” so I just kept quiet! So, “jat back at ya.” This article will be a lexicological workhorse for me until I get it down, a jat of its own kind.

  12. Many thanks for a well written and precise discussion of tea nomenclature. In the spirit of of geekiness, I would like to add a few words about important benefits of using seedlings in a new tea growing regions (there are reasons why growing a clonal crop in Japan is a whole different kettle of fish than a monoclonal crop in Hawai`i but that is a different discussion).

    I am a molecular ecologist and study the question of genetic diversity and its impact on the sustainability of populations and their evolution in new environments. I also own a tea farm (Big Island Tea) in Hawai`i with my Sweetie Eliah.

    When a population (smaller than a variety and usually not clonal) establishes in a new environment, its greatest chance of success as a whole comes from a diverse “gene pool” (what we really mean when we say that is a diverse “allele pool”). That is to say, a genetically diverse population is most likely to have individuals whose genotypes have pre-adapted them for their new environment. In a remote place like Hawai`i that has never supported a commercial tea industry, establishing a new crop is best approached with rich genetic diversity. In addition to optimizing the adaptive potential of the crop to its new environment, we also maximize the resistance of the new population to exploitation by pests. The more genetically homogenous the population, the faster a pest can expand its population size at both the population (individual gardens) and meta-population (Island) levels. In summary, there are several benefits to growing seedlings in addition to their tap root including pest resistance (population and meta-population levels), and adaptability. The importance of diversity in fact transcends the tea itself when it comes to its cultivation. We are promoting the “agro-ecological” approach in which the farm is designed so that tea is one of the constituents of a diverse forest ecosystem … I hope I didn’t geek out too much. Aloha

  13. Fascinating! And by far the best explanation of tea plant variety (not varietals 😉 ) and cultivars I’ve read.

    But I wonder if we (as tea fans) can’t also use the word ‘varietal’ in the same sense as it’s used in the wine world: to refer to the final produced wine that comes from a single variety. For example, in wine the plant variety would be Merlot, then once produced and bottled, assuming it’s not blended, it becomes the varietal Merlot. Albeit overly simplistic for tea relative to calling out the cultivar, would that same terminology work for tea?

  14. Jat (जात) basically means Caste. I thought it was used to classify humans and not plants.

  15. An earlier poster asked:
    whether the proper Hindi grammar puts the “masala” before or after the “chai.”

    masala chai = tea/chai (that has been flavoured with masala)
    chai masala = masala powder (that is used to flavour tea/chai)

  16. Very interesting read, thank you.

    But it doesn’t answer the question I hoped it would which is: why, as I keep reading, do clones of the older Darjeeling tea plants not reproduce the same flavour profile as the original bushes? If they’re clones, surely they must be identical copies?

    Is it another case of the people making the claim failing to understand the science?

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