The tea plant never ceases to amaze. A century ago Tea – Camellia Sinensis variety arrived and thrived under humid conditions of Assam and there has been no looking back since. Some claims of there being indegenious varities in different regions have added to the lore of tea. Left to grow wild, they shoot up to heights of 40ft and more. In remote hamlets of the North East picking tea buds from such heights is an excuse for a community gathering and feasting where invariably the expert climbers would be well fortified with intoxicating local rice brew to better help them with the job of plucking tea leaves from tall tea trees.
In Assam besides the tea plants the towering height of the majestic Semal tree leaves me in awe. The branches outstreatched to the skies offer a safe haven to some of the most elegant large birds I have seen. In late October evening a noisy brood of Indian grey hornbills swooped down on the tree tops and halted for the night. Their deep throated squacks sounded so alien compared to the sweet chirpings of the bulbul, mynah and sparrows. They squabbled and chattered – more of an operation of head count, I presumed – then quietly settled down for the night. I felt elated that they chose to be my guest, blissfully forgetting that the large tree has been standing there for generations playing host to such birds.
In most Tea Estates in Assam with the onset of winter begins the pruning operations. Knives are readied and sharpened. In general a 3 year cycle of LP, DS and MS or unpruned are followed. Pruning begins at the crack of dawn when the hardy branches are a bit damp with the night dew and fog. It is strenous work and requires strong arms . Precesion is called for as the cuts must be made without splits and the angle and table have to be maintained. The once full bush lies naked and exposed for a while only to be rejuvenated after a smart spring shower. The first sight of tender new shoots sets the ball rolling for another year of plucking and manufacturing varities of teas.
Revived, renewed and ready to give off more of itself. When the tea bush is well managed and protected the outer frame grows to a 5ft diameter and sometimes more. Dried and treated they make for excellent center tables. Some tea growing sections are known to be over 100 years old. After years of pruning the bush wears the elements of her age beautifully. The gnarled, twisted and knotted joints bear testimony to how much has been extracted from this incredible plant.