The tea plant is called in Latin Camellia sinensis. Like many plants, though, there are variations, called “varietals.”
Camellia sinensis var. sinensis
The varietal from which most green tea is produced. It originated from southwestern China and has been used as a beverage and medicine there for over 4700 years. It is smaller and slower growing and has more distinct serrations on the edges of the leaves than the varietal from which most black tea is made (Camellia sinensis var. assamica). Green tea has only three to four flushes of active shoot growth per year and more cold tolerance, requiring a dormant period to produce the important first flush in mid to late spring. The leaves are steamed shortly after harvest to prevent fermentation and then dried. The liquid is usually yellow to green and is enjoyed without milk and sugar. Some of the harvest from this varietal has started to be processed as black tea since about the 1800s. Yunnan and Keemun are two prime examples. This is also the varietal grown in the Darjeeling region of India and in a number of other countries.
Camellia sinensis var. assamica
One of the best known varietals is Camellia sinensis var. assamica, a large-leafed variety of tea discovered comparatively recently in terms of tea history (the 1830s) by Charles Bruce, a British botanist and adventurer. Today, clones of the original wild plant is grown in the Assam region of India but also in Kenya and other countries. Most of the tea harvest is processed as CTC (“cut, tear, curl” or some variation of this) and steeps up a rich dark ruby colored liquid with a strong malty taste and aroma, but also some bitterness due to high tannins. The bitterness led to the tradition of masala chai, where milk and spices were added to the tea as it steeped.
Whichever one you choose, take some time to steep the tea carefully and savor every drop.