The traditional practices of wild harvesting and foraging still support entire communities across the globe, which is what makes wild grown teas and herbs so thrilling to discover and to drink.
Many wild teas and herbal tisanes have developed completely naturally, and entirely uncultivated. Other ‘wild’ teas are not completely wild – they come from once-established tea farms which have been long abandoned, sometimes for many decades. A farm may have been abandoned by an owner who decided to desert its remote location to find work in a city, or perhaps the tea farm was state-owned and went bankrupt during one of China’s many economic reforms. Either way, the tea trees are left to their own devices and continue to grow naturally. At some point, local farmers will discover these now wild tea fields, and perhaps decide to make a small proportion of excellent tea from the leaves. And whatever their story, wild grown teas are amongst the most special, unusual and surprising around.
One of the pitfalls that wild teas face is sustainable harvesting. If these wild bushes are over-harvested, they cannot recover and they die out. Many herbs used in Chinese medicine are now near extinction due to over-harvesting in the wild.
The way our wild tea growers counter this is through controlled, gentle harvesting. Our Wild Mountain Dragon Well, for example, is only harvested on one day each year. Tea pickers wake up at 3am to trek the 1,300 metres up the mountain to pick the leaves, from trees over 100 years old. The farm was abandoned over three decades ago, the leaves growing wild and unpruned ever since. But due to the clean, high mountain air and the lack of human intervention, the resulting tea is highly sought after, and considered to have a very strong cha qi –a very desirable energy often referred to in Chinese culture and medicine.
Likewise our wild Rooibos grows and is harvested in the harsh heat and dry, umber soil, growing and thriving where many crops fail in a symbiotic relationship with local micro-organisms. Attempts to grow Rooibos anywhere outside of South Africa have so far failed.
The plant is related to the legume (pea and bean) family, yet is processed in much the same way as green tea. Most is grown in Cederberg Province, and 98% is cultivated. However, there is one area where Rooibos grows wild, near a small and isolated town called Wupperthal. Most families in Wupperthal depend on small-scale farming to make a living, and the most important crop in the area is Rooibos. The Wupperthal Original Rooibos Co-op was founded in 1990 to better regulate the industry and market prices. Now, there are 74 farming members of the community. Due to the high quality of the organic product, the members of the co-op are able to achieve double the market value for their crop, which allows the farmers to focus their efforts on improving their product, benefitting everyone from the local community, to those lucky enough to drink the final product.