‘Discovery’ of the tea plant Thea assamica (now, Camellia sinensis var. assamica) in the Indian territory in the 1830s

Raman, Anantanarayanan


The tea plant (Camellia sinensis, Theaceae; previously Thea sinensis, Ternstrœmiaceae) is a highly sought-after beverage source today. In 2018 alone, c. 270 B L of tea was consumed throughout the world. Global recognition of green tea has enhanced majorly, especially in the later decades of the 20th century, because of the level of antioxidants (c. 450 mg of vitamin C equivalents) it includes, currently seen valuable in the general well-being of humans. In this article, I chronicle the events that steered the ‘discovery’ of Thea assamica (presently, C. sinensis var. assamica) in the wilderness of Upper Assam (the Ahôm country) and its commercial, large-scale production. William Griffith, who searched it and wrote on the T. assamica material growing in the Indian territory in the 1830s, examined the plant community in which the natural populations of T. assamica grew, in addition to writing on the soil and other related aspects vital for its large-scale cultivation. His notes shed light on an early understanding of the ‘ecosystem’ in which T. assamica grew in the wild. Griffith clarifies that they spread naturally along the river and creek beds in North-eastern India from the neighbouring Chinese territory over the last several hundreds of years. His remarks on the adaptations of the tea plant and other associated plants to specific soil types and on the top soil he found in tea-growing areas impress not only as remarkable but also as pioneering. His comments on the kinds of plants associated with the tea-plant populations and the general vegetation around the tea plant foreshadow the ecological concepts, ‘communities’ and ‘vegetation types’, which were recognized formally much later.


Ahôm; Bruce Brothers; Camellia sinensis; William Griffith; Nilgiris; Singpoo people; Nathaniel Wallich.

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