Blog

March 16th, 2012

Good news and Bad News its all Good news..
I have returned from China in my search for seeds of Green tea plants. Although I made many connections, purchased seeds and sent them home, my largest shipment of fresh seeds was confiscated by the USDA and destroyed because of a larva they found. The shipping took a month and so when by the time I got word and tried to order more seed there was not much available, the season had past. So what seed I had was a small amount from China and seed from India, plus some other seed I had in my backpack when I flew back home.

Looking for more seed
Chinese do not save much tea seed but on my travels I was offered rooted cuttings many times. I was focused on seeds because the hurdles of importing rooted cuttings are daunting, dealing with the Chinese government as well as the USA Ag laws. I did eventually source some seed from a large company, but the first batch was iffy on quality and the second batch is being shipped now from a northern province and hopefully it will pan out on the germination. But with such a dismal turn of events and being not so fruitful with seeds I am not sure just how many tea plants I will have for all my costs and sacrifice I had made to go to China. Will I have enough even to fill my orders let alone the waiting list that grows daily for plants? Its was looking questionable so I decided to take another look at cuttings to see if I could get them into country and through many trials (you have no idea)

I had success!
What’s good about rooted cuttings? These cuttings are what Chinese farmers use to cultivate new acreage of tea plants. They are the exact clone of a tea shrub right from the fields where they grow and produce tea. These plants have been through the selection process already, taken from mature mother plants.

Seedlings vs Cuttings

Seedlings and Seeds have genetic variability and so you don’t know what you are going to get;you will select out your best plants over time. You can see that when they sprout.

Liners: Here is a Seedling just before being sold as a liner.

4 inch pot: Below is a what we sell for $12 in a 4 inch pot also grown from a Seedling

Clones (below)are the surest thing, replicas, each one is the same taken right from the mother plant. Look at the size! We can offer a bigger plant for
less money!

Size
The other good thing about these rooted cuttings is the size!
Compare the Seedling Liner and Plant with the Cutting
Our seedlings “liners” have a second set of leaves and is rooting out in the 2 inch cell, not very tall, a couple of inches tall. Our 4 inch potted plant is a 4 inch pot,a liner we fertilize and baby a few more months and sell it when it reaches 8 to 12 inch tall for $12. Seedlings vary in size, that’s why we say 8 to 12 inches, that’s variability of seeds for you. But look at these rooted cuttings (above)they are bigger as cuttings than our $12 plants are when they go in the mail and they are all that big. They have more leaves and are stockier too, barkier. ( is that a word?) They also have no tap root, which is what you get from a seedling, so they’re easier to re-pot.

I am jazzed about these cuttings, once rooted out can they could go right into a 1 gal and grown out (and sold) as a specimen plant right away. Best of all, with all these great attributes I am offering these rooted cuttings at less than what a $12 plant would cost, (which is was these will be in month or so), but I am selling them now, for $7. We will even baby them for two more weeks ( we just fertilized them with a super potent fertilizer) and then ship them out to you.

Limited quantity
Whereas I have my order in to try to get more cuttings, the paperwork and hassle is incredible, we are not for sure if we can get more and what I have now came by way of my suitcases and a box and a busy day in customs that let me go by quickly, so there is a limited supply on hand. These are the ones which made it through, and then they were planted to see which suffered shock, and now are leafing out and looking happy. They are heading to be $12 plants soon so this is a good time to get yours for a lot less as I am using the money from the sale to pay a source guy to get me more. So get what no one in the USA has, exact replicas of Chinese tea plants, from their ancient grandmothers, specimens, right from the field, for a great price. At this price there is a 4 plant minimum. All plants come way-carefully shipped Flat rate ($16.75 shipped anywhere in the USA. 8 plants fit in a box so that makes 8 plants the best deal. Go in with friends or just go for it, as 8 plants is the minimum you will want,enough to really take care of your tea need)
Click here to Buy plants now!

November 19, 2011

Greetings Tea lovers. This is Steve Behncke sending an update from my trip to China where I am trekking thru the country looking for heirloom Tea seeds.

Ahhh China, this is where it all began, where according to tradition, the legendary Emperor Shennong first discovered tea almost five thousand years ago when, in 2737BC the wind blew some leaves from a nearby tree into a bowl of boiling water he was drinking, causing it to change color. The monarch took a sip and was pleasantly surprised by the flavor and restorative nature of the brew, thus discovering what would become the worlds most consumed beverage.

China is an amazing place. Its clean and friendly and the people are hardworking. There is no crime that I can see, you never see police, and when you do they have no guns. I have only heard one siren since I have been here and I feel more safe here than I have anywhere in the world, including my own country. And little wonder. I read in the Hong Kong paper the other day that a woman was sentenced to death for stealing what would amount to a fraction of what Madoff stole, and gun possession results in years of hard labor. I will write more of my experiences in the days to come but for now I want to update you on my travels.

Shanghai

As of this writing I have only been hear a little over a week. I arrived to Shanhgai November 8th. What an incredible city (if you like cities) , futuristic sky scrapers casting shadows over beautiful parks where the ancient ones gather to fly kites, visit with each other and perform Ti Chi. The Chinese have a voracious appetite for construction and the buildings are constructed with built-in light arrays creating incredible, synchronized light shows that illuminate the sky, and dazzle the eyes. I have been to New York and stood in Time Square and believe me, Shanghai makes that look little like a porch light. I arrived at night and after an hour on the subway I got lost in the city looking for my hotel. There I was wandering the streets ,dragging my little roller luggage, guitar slung over one soldier, looking like the off spring of That Girl and Forest Gump.

But I couldn’t wait to get out of town and begin my search for the seeds of Chinas 10 most famous teas. I subwayed to the train station to buy a ticket for Hangzhou, where the legendary Long Jin tea grows, AKA: Dragon Well tea. Note: do not attempt this during morning rush. I was at one point swept up by a current of people, thousands of them, no possible way to resist. Really hilarious, wish I had it on film.

Anyway, I’m blazing new trails here folks. No one is doing this, buying seeds in Chinas, believe me, I have done my research. I have imported tea from Korea, India and Nepal. I have traveled personally to the latter two as well as other countries and considered myself somewhat savvy as a traveler. But I am a babe all over again now that I have hit China. The language barrier is huge. I cant even order a meal. I sit there until I see someone order something that looks good and then point and say “I want one of those” I searched the net, Craigs list, Alibaba.com, I could not find any information of who, how, or where to buy tea seeds. Tea yes! By the metric ton, tea goes out of China, all manner of tea and all manner of varieties. But why would someone want tea seed , people ask, do they grow tea in the USA? The answer is yes, I do, and so do the many people who write me each week asking how they too can grow their own tea.

I have tried for many years to get some enterprising individual from China to send me seed. But I have had no success. Poor me huh? I just had to come here myself and get some!. So that is the reason for this trip, to get as many varieties of tea seed as I can, and while we can, because who knows what the future holds?

Now there’s as many varieties of tea as there are wines and the task of where and what to buy has been a bit overwhelming. I decided to begin with the 10 most famous, just as a starting point in my Chinese adventure, but to be honest just about any good tea variety would please me really, as I know as much about varieties of tea as I do about wine, sorry to disappoint , but it’s true. I know what I like, and I’m no snob, I’m the same way with wine. I like what I like. And most of tea drinking is more about how tea is processed than what and where it’s grown. But I am on a mission to become an expert grower of tea and then later I will get good at processing tea right? So admittedly I am on a learning curve when it comes to my search for seed in China. So far in my growing career (we began in 2006) I have focused on just getting as many seeds I can from the two basic groups of tea; the Assam varieties: Camellia sinesnis assamica, and the other is Green Tea; Camellia sinensis sinensis, or Chinese variety. In short, black teas and the green ones. Of course the Chinese teas are broken down into even more classes by which we can our red teas and Oolongs. But essentially there is the two types. I have been very happy with the Chinese variety that comes from Korea and Nepal and so far I have only been able to source one variety of Assam from India. But my India source does not always come thru and I have had to disappoint my customers occasionally over the years when I received bad seed or like in the case of the frost that hit Korea this year that is threatening my only green tea variety and might leave me barren of Green tea. So I decided to hit the road, travel a little, make a few connections and have some back up sources. So China?… Here I come.

Typical boat on West Lake

So back to Hangzhou, The home of Dragon Well tea or Long Jin. Hangzhout sits on West Lake , the Place Marco Polo visited and he said it was the closest to heaven of anywhere on earth. I saw some pics, and it looked intriguing. But, well, hmmmm, what can I can I say. I’ve not seen heaven, and West Lake is nice, but I am sure Marc would not like West Lake now. Basically West Lake is the party spot for the most wealthy Chinese. The streets are lined with high-end restaurants, Starbucks, and car dealerships,( not Ford and Chevy.)We’re talking Maserati, Rolls Royce, Lamborghini, and so on, in posh show rooms next door to jazz clubs , KFC (there’s 3 being built every day in China, they love it) Pizza hut and DQ, tour buses, taxis and hordes of people. Did I mention smog? I was lucky to get a room, and it hurt my budget bad.

But that’s downtown and the next day I headed to the hills on the local buses and soon I was walking in in rows of glorious Green Tea. Armed with small pieces of paper, with questions written on them in Chinese (with the help of hotel staff) that I would hand to the farmers when I met them in the way to inquire about teas seeds. Now the farmers would read my little notes “ do you have seeds I can buy”etc and look at me like “this guy must mean Tea leaf,” but soon I got to know the words for Tea seed and actually say it, and then they would act like they never heard of anyone asking for such a thing, stare at me like I was crazy, point to me while conversing with friends about this crazy “megua” (American) with a beard (remind me to tell you how people are constantly coming up to me and asking to take their picture with me. I should charge them) shake their head and say “BAO!” Not happening! Not too encouraging. I figured this should have been a slam dunk.

It wasn’t long that I came to understand, that for the most part, they don’t save seed. Here’s why. For one, Dragon well is a very sought after tea that sells really well, every bit of it , and the farmers are poised and ready to pinch every bud they can, whenever and wherever the next flush is ready to harvest. And now that we are going into the fall ,the last flush has come and gone. This fact along with that very sad logistical reality is the more you pinch the buds the less likely there is going to be any of the normal fruiting stage to take place, hello??? you know, the flower followed by the seed? I was pretty discouraged. (As well as feeling kind stupid.) Not only was my mental image of Hop sing replaced by Jonny Depp, wannabee- KFC consumers, but my very first try at locating seed was looking to be a bust as well. How do they propagate tea plants, you might ask? Easy, by rooted cuttings. In fact one farmer told me that he would do just that for me if I wanted to (this was all communicated thru acting and miming) They simply cut a semi woody branch with one or two leaves and root it in a light soil. Problem is the USDA does not go for that, that is, you can’t bring in the plants with soil into America. It’s not all lost however. I did notice that flowers still grew on the lower sides of the tea plants, down low where the tea is not harvested (ahh nature finds a way doesn’t she?) and I asked the farmer, ‘is it not possible to still get me some seed from down low in the plant?” The answer was yes, it’s just no one asked before. But he would need some time and I will have to return in March to get my seed! Allll righty then. No seed in hand but not a complete waste of time either. I can’t mark anything as done on my list of the ten famous teas but at least I am on the right track. Maybe my first journey will be about a little educating. But the Great Wall wasn’t built in a day after all. And maybe I need to lighten up on the 10 most famous teas too. Open the tea-field of possibilities a little.

I really got along well with the hotel staff and was helping them with their English and they, my Chinese. Before I knew it I was in the kitchen preparing them their first all American meal. I wanted it to be Mexican food, (my forte but is it American? What is American food after all?)But after walking thru the market place which had everything from chicken feet to eels to frogs I settled for mom’s menu of Fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy and candied carrots. It was a huge hit. People who I hadn’t even met later would stop me in the hallway and say they had some of the mashed potatoes and gravy, one lady presented me with some fruit as a thank you. Man, was it funny watching them eat gravy with chopsticks.

In the evenings I played my songs to the staff and guests in the courtyard and one young man (staff) was particularly enamored with my playing. So on the day I left I gave him my guitar to keep until I returned, he was greatly pleased.

So where to next? My budget extremely damaged by this tourist town I decided to make my travel dollars really count. I would go where most of the tea is grown in China, the place where it all began, YUNNAN. Craving Chinese culture as much as I am teas seeds, I have heard by my fellow travelers that the province of Yunnan was the place to go.

I booked a train, a sleeper, two nights travel from Hangzhou. Sharing my quarters were two men who had a fireworks business, classic. I was sleeping when the Porter let them in. His big face got really close to mine and he said, with a toothy smile (in English) “Hewoe, how la u? Wayah yoo fum?” They were great. We really got into some deep stuff over the next two days and I learned that Chinese people are not the big red commy menace they are made out to be but just folks like us who want to work, love and live .It’s the governments that want to rule the world.

I arrived to what is known as Spring city or Kunming. This is a major hub and jump off points to the north to Tibet and
south, to Vietnam. Yunnan also boarders Laos, and Myanmar (formerly Burma). I plan to see some serious culture, and from the hundreds I saw entering third class on the train, I expect to be in contact with a lot of really colorful indigenous people. I have already made a few contacts in Kunming. There is Hollis, who has a translation service in town. He invited me to tea at his 11th floor office building overlooking the city. He has his roots in the red clay hills to the west and we chatted over Pu-er tea, dark and red that will gave us up to 15 infusions from one batch, can you believe it?(little cups, thimble size) He is making some calls to family and friends to see if he can’t get me a guide into the hills to get some of the thick leaf variety that is used to make this famous tea. In the meantime I have just booked a sleeper train to go north tomorrow to Chengdu and from there I will catch a ride to Ya ‘an , which sits at the foot hills of the Himalayas . Ya’an is the gateway to the Tea Horse trail. After the silk worms were smuggled out of China in the 5th century to Istanbul, the monopoly of China silk and the importance of the famous Silk Road trade that made China rich came to a rapid decline. But in the 7th century a new product took the place of silk, Chinese tea. And along with horses ( which were important for military strength), the Tea Horse trail, a maze of tracks, paths and passages, that passed through immensely difficult terrain to connect the regions of western Sichuan, Yunnan, Tibet and Qinghai became the new Silk road and Tea, the new currency. Both difficult and diverse, the Tea Horse Trail passed over some of the highest, coldest and most inhospitable regions of Asia.

Tea was carried by mule caravans and by human portage (known as ‘coolies’, a term derived from the Chinese kuli or ‘bitter labour’) a distance of 112 miles each way on narrow mountain tracks. A porter could carry 10 to 12 packs of tea weighing an average of 7 kilos each, along with carrying his own grain to eat (another 9 kilos) and it is said they would go thru as many as 6 pairs of sandals on the journey. Pu-er tea , which comes from the area known as Pu’er (south of Kunming) is a tea that was pressed into blocks to make it easier to carry, and so the deeply crushed, oxidized and
aged tea became a favorite throughout the region.

In Tibet they would mix Pu-er tea with salt and Yak butter to make Tibetan Butter tea, a nutritious staple in the area

So yes, Ya’an, the gateway to Tibet is where I am heading next to find seeds. As a side note Ya-an is also the home of the Panda (bear- cat in Chinese) and the Panda reserve. Pray for me that my jouney will be successful. If you have not pre-ordered your seeds, plants and liners, there is still time. You don’t want to miss out on this opportunity.

Until next time…..live well

Steve Behncke

From Kunming China November 19th, 2011

Kunming to Chengdu November 19th to December 10th, 2011

I caught the sleeper train from Kunming to Chengdu, in the Sichuan province. The soft sleepers are nice; four beds to a room and you can close the door. But somehow the ventilation system in the train pumps air from the other cars and it’s like a direct channel to pure cigarette smoke, sick! Chinese are serious smokers. In fact they do not shake hands but most likely will greet you with an offer of a cigarette. No PC here, restuarants, buses, trains, anywhere, they just light up,deal with it. I kept jumping up from my bunk to look at outside and give a glare at who might be smoking near the door, but there would be no one in the aisle.
I am an early riser and I went to the dining car to read and wait for the sunrise. Postcards of real life flashing by the window as we passed mountain, river and valley, everywhere people working in the fields on tapestries of raised beds made of stone and rock pulled from the ground over generations . A Chinese family can work a small plot and grow enough rice to last 2 years. Chinese people do not go hungry, no matter how poor they are. There is no welfare check and culture of homelessness here, just a piece of ground, a hoe and a handful of seeds. I have crossed the US a dozen times and I have never seen anything close to the work ethic demonstrated by these quiet farmers who spend the day in the fields.

In Chengdu I found the Hostel called Mix, owned by Jerry Mix, a Chinese man and experienced traveler. Mix hostel is a great place and everything I heard it was .Mix hostel has a international vibe, cool art work, incense burning everywhere , a real lay-back atmosphere, pictures of Jerry’s travels throughout Tibet and Mongolia, great hang-out rooms with big fat couches and pillows to lounge on and surf the net. There is a kitchen putting out great Sichuan food and a really friendly and helpful staff. Chengdu would be my base of operations for searching out tea seeds found in this province. I met a guy from Australia and he asked to tag along on my tea seed adventure, having just finished two months of volunteer teaching in Xian (the home of the terracotta warriors) he was looking for adventure.

River flowig thru Ya’an

The Bus ride to Ya’an was an hour and a half. Ya’an was an old town off the tourist trail. Chinese are very polite as a rule and normally will only risk a sideways glance at you as we walked by, but the sight of this bearded guy walking the streets was too much for this small town and people everywhere were checking us out. We strolled the markets and ate some unknown meat in a small local café.

The tea seed propagation farm called Ya’an Techan was huge and geared to major tea plant sales. They deal in seeds and plants from the Sichuan region and they propagate seeds of a green tea used primarily for producing Oolongs teas. I had some resistance to buying seeds from such a big place, having in my mind to support smaller, local famers, but since I was worried that I might not get any seed at all, I thought it best to make a purchase of at least 10 kilos of Oolong tea seeds.

They laughed at such a small order as they deal in the thousands of seeds and plants. They were not interested in helping me export in any way, telling me that it was not possible to get seeds out of China. “ Men from Europe, come with suitcases and get seeds out that way”, they told me, which, though not to comforting, might be my only option.

Back at mix hostel I saw some of the city, famous for the world’s first use of paper currency among other significant historical data including being the city where all intellectuals fled during the Japanese occupation in WWII and an earthquake in 2008 that killed 80000 in the surrounding areas, though the city itself was so well built it suffered almost no damage. Mix himself took a number of us on a bike ride for about three hours thru town visiting the old district, the Tibet quarter, and a cool noodle place where were all stopped to eat. I can’t connect with Youtube (its blocked from China, as well as Facebook) but be sure to check back for some cool movies I made of my bike ride in Chengdu.