The place of origin of tea plant is still a matter of speculation. Our knowledge of tea in the distant past is derived from China but information available from Chinese sources does not throw much light on its place of origin. For many years, controversies raged among scientists and scholars as to whether the tea plant originated in China or in India. There are ancient stories of how tea came to China from India and indeed, there are some who believe that the Chinese must have obtained the plant from a source outside China. Although plants of the China variety had painstakingly arrived in India for quite some time, after the indigenous Assam tea was discovered in 1823, some scientists argued that there was but one species of tea, the Indian, and that the inferior growth and smaller leaves of China tea were the result of the transportation of the plant far from home into an uncongenial climate and into unfavorable conditions of soil and treatment. Since the early part of 19th century, discovery of ‘wild’ tea plants in Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Myanmar, Thailand and upto South Vietnam and Laos indicates that this part is the original habitat of tea plants. The tea tracts where the so-called “wild” tea was discovered were almost certainly clumps of cultivated tea abandoned by the migratory hill tribes. Hence, it is doubtful whether the plants discovered in these regions were truly wild. There are evidences that the inhabitants of Northern Burma (Myanmar) on the other side of the mountain range that divides Assam from Myanmar were known to have used tea as vegetable (Letpet tea), for chewing as well as for making a drink out of it. In the Indo-China peninsula, tea was an important village industry for many centuries long before the discovery of Assam tea plant.
Map of South East Asia showing the centres of origin and dispersal of tea. I. Primary centre II. Secondary centre
A. Area I B. Area II C. Area III
The problem of origin of tea plant has not been finally settled. However, at this present moment, the natural home of the plant is considered to be within the fan-shaped area included between Nagaland, Manipur and Lushai (Mizoram) Hills along the Assam-Burma (Arunachal Pradesh-Myanmar) frontier in the West, through China, probably as far as the Che-Kiang (Zhejiang) province in the East, and from this line generally forwards South through the hills of Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand into Vietnam.
A recent study, based on the geographical history of Eastern Yunan and the distribution of Camellia species in that area has indicated that the long narrow region of Wenshan and Honghe, located between 22040’-24010’N latitude and 103010’ -105020’E longitude is the centre of origin of the tea plant. However, considering the current distribution pattern of different races of tea, the probable centre of origin of tea may be assumed near the source of Irrawadi River and from there it probably dispersed to South-Eastern China, Indonesia and Assam.