In 2008, I got a call from Dr S. K. Pathak, who was working at the Tocklai Tea Research Institute (Tocklai), in Jorhat, Assam. He wanted to know if our tea farm, Aideobarie had any 100-year old tea plants that were growing from the original Betjan seeds. Betjan is one of the tea seed varieties unique to Assam, and as it happened, about 10% of Aidebarie had these plants.
The rest of the estate, like most of Assam, was populated with clonal tea plants. And we had stopped using seeds to propagate new plants, instead choosing vegetative propagation from a leaf and stem cutting. The clone of choice, for most tea farms in Assam, is the first Tocklai clone, TV1, which produces an excellent and consistent quality CTC tea. Tocklai released the TV1 clone in 1949, and since then, we have replanted most of our old tea fields with it. The Indian government even gives tea farms like ours an incentive in the form of a subsidy to uproot the senile plants and preferentially replace them with clones or new bi-clonal seed jats developed by Tocklai. In the process, we lost the original Assamica jat plants growing from the old Assam seed varieties.
Dr Pathak was concerned about two things: The loss of heterogeneous character in the seeds having a vast gene pool; and the homogeneity by propagating a limited number of clones, that would be genetically alike.
Imagine, of 300,000 hectares of land, planted with tea in Assam, there could be about 50,000 that have the same TV1 and a few other clones, with limited gene pools. Dr Pathak believes that by bringing back the old seed jats of Assam, we can maintain the quality of Assam tea for generations to come.
On his advice, we decided to medium prune some selected good quality tea bushes in an old Betjan seed jat section of the garden. We allowed them to grow, and in about three years, they bore tea seeds that we collected and could use in the seed barie. It takes about eight years to see the results in the field, and not every tea producer in Assam is willing to invest that kind of time.
But it is in equal parts essential and worth the investment of time, because these plants are sturdy, tolerant to the local environment, and grow very well. They are a replica of any old Assam jat known for its high-quality tea.
For our customers, the return of the Assamica jat plant translates to a tea that has excellent depth of body and flavour, qualities that made Assam teas famous all those decades ago. We make our Assamica Premium Orthodox whole leaf black tea with the same tea plants.
We now get nearly 10,000 seeds a year from our tea trees developed in this old Betjan section. These are being returned to the field, steadily, as we move towards creating that balance between seed grown, clonal and bi-clonal hybrids at Aideobarie, so that our teas embody the best of Assam, in the most sustainable way possible.
Dr Pathak retired from Tocklai in 2017 as its Deputy Director, but continues to work with the tea industry, as a consultant to several tea companies in northeast India. His work on tea seeds continues.
Last week, Dr Pathak was at Aideobarie to see how our Betjan poly-parent section was doing. We had a quick Q&A with him on this subject. If you would like to learn more about how we are promoting the old seed varieties, the video below should interest you.