All tea - black tea, green tea, wu long tea - comes from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. The different types of tea depend on how the tea leaves are processed after they are picked.

Nevertheless, there are differences in tea leaves. Camellia sinensis can be hybridized very easily, and this has led to the development of more than 3000 varietals (or cultivars).

The tea plant is one of more than 300 species of Camellia in the family Theaceae. Most of these are used as flowering shrubs that can be grown in diverse climates. Tea produced commercially comes primarily from two varieties - Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (China tea) and Camellia sinensis var. assamica (Assam tea or Indian tea). The sinensis variety has relatively small and narrow leaves and is more tolerant to cold. The assamica variety will grow to a larger plant than sinensis and has larger, tougher leaves.

The many varietals of tea exist because of the plant's natural ability to adapt to local growing conditions. Over time certain varietals have been selected because of their special characteristics which make them suitable for growing in a particular environment or for producing a certain type of tea.

Varietals can be identified by leaf shape, coloring, leaf size, or other desirable characteristics. White tea, for example, is produced from a varietal that has an abundance of fine hairs on the young leaf shoots. Other varietals may have higher resistance to diseases which can affect the tea plant.

Varietals are sometimes given names that describe the appearance or the use of the tea leaf. ‘Da Bai' (big white) is a varietal used to make white tea, and true to its name is a large leaf tea bush. The ‘Bancha' varietal is most often used to make the Japanese green tea of the same name.

Most varietals have come to be associated with a certain type of tea, but this does not mean that specific varietals cannot be used for other types of tea. A varietal traditionally used for white tea could be processed into wu long tea, or a black tea varietal could be used to make green tea.

Because of the large number of existing varietals and the unique qualities of each one, researchers around the world are making "fingerprints" of tea varietals and cataloging them. Fingerprinting is done through DNA analysis and allows new varietals to be developed for their disease resistance, flavor, and hardiness.

The following are a few of the thousands of tea varietals around the world.

Wu Long Varietals

Wu Long tea is made with very precise rolling and roasting techniques that require specially selected varietals. Many of these have been developed in Taiwan and China's Fujian province and have recognizable flavor profiles.

  • Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe) - Originating in the WuYi mountain region of Fujian province, China.

  • Bai Ji Guan

  • Mingcong

  • Rougui

  • Shuixian

  • Qizhong

  • Tieguanyin - originates in Anxi province, China.

  • Ben Shan Green Dragon - originates in Anxi province, China. Shares many characteristics with Tieguanyin. The tea plant has strong branches with brightly colored ellipse-shaped leaves.

  • Chin Hsuan (TTES No.12) - originates in Taiwan. Has a fast growth rate and desirable taste profile.

  • Yu (TTES No. 13) - originates in Taiwan. Grows as a loosely-formed bush which is suitable for hand-harvesting. Has a slightly lower growth rate than Chin Hsuan but with a very desirable floral aroma and taste.

  • Chin-Shin (Green-centered) - originates in Taiwan. One of the most popular varietals for high mountain wu long but it is more prone to disease than other Taiwan varietals.

  • Si Ji (Four Season) - originates in Taiwan. Has a fast growth rate in all four seasons. Is a popular varietal for mid-altitude (800 - 1200 meters) plantations.

  •  (Soft Stem) - originates in the Wu Yi mountain area of Fujian province, China, but was introduced to Taiwan in the 19th century. This was one of the original varietals used in Taiwan but has low resistance to disease and a slow growth rate.

Pu-Erh Varietals

  • Da Ye (Big Broad Leaf) - originates in Yunnan province, China. This varietal has large, broad leaves with a unique flavor.

  • Chen Yun Hao - originates in the Yiwu mountain area of Yunnan province.

White Tea Varietals

  • Da Bai Hao (Big White) - originates in the Taimu Mountain region of Fujian province, China. The young buds have a unique silvery hair.

  • Shao Bai Hao (Small White)

  • Shui Hsien

  • Baihao Yinzhen

  • Baimudan

  • Shoumei

Green Tea Varietals

  • Yabukita - originates in Japan. Small leaf tea varietal with a sweet flavor profile.

  • Ryofu

  • Asatsuyu - originates in Japan. Vivid green color.

  • Himemidori

  • Kanayamidori

  • Makura No. 1 - originates in Japan. Selected for high tannin and caffeine and has a floral taste.

  • Yutaka Midori - originates in Japan.

  • Sofu - originates in Japan. A hybrid of Yabukita and Shizu-Inzatsu 131 with a characteristic aroma.