Seeds were the only source of planting tea in different tea growing areas in the world. Initially in many countries, including India, tea plantation was started by importing seeds from China However, in many cases the plantations failed. In Assam, after the discovery of indigenous Assam tea plant, planters started growing tea by collecting seeds from the so-called “wild tea”. But during this early period, controversy on the merit of the indigenous plant of Assam compared to the plant imported from China was observed till the third quarter of the last century. Some preferred Assam plant while the other opted for China seed. Again some planters showed preference to hybrid seeds.
Jats of tea were the first improved planting material of tea developed in Assam. Towards the middle of the last century, Assam tea plant became popular among the planters. However, as the plants were extremely variable in nature, the performance of these was found variable from place to place. They thrived well in some parts of the Brahmaputra valley but not in a different soil and climatic regions like the Surama Valley and North Bengal. This prompted a few pioneers to think for standard source of seeds for different soil climatic regions.
Amos and Jullian Stiefelhagen, two German brothers were among those pioneers, who took the lead. They established a seed barie (garden) in Cachar district of Assam during the sixties of the last century with seeds collected in Burma (Myanmar). The seed bearers were selected from among the seedlings raised from the Burma seeds. The seedlings were Assam type but the plants were more hardy and thrived well in drought prone areas. The barie supplied seeds to regions like North Bengal and South India and some of its seeds were exported to other countries. Thereafter, as many as 50, big and small, commercial seed baries were established in Assam. The baries were established with seeds collecting from marked sources and raised seedling. Potential seed bearers were identified among the nursery seedlings, mainly on the basis of shape, size and colour of the leaf.
These seeds produced in a bari (Seed Garden) is known as a Jat. It is an Assamese word meaning caste or pedigree. The jat names are invariably given after the names of garden or the locality where the seed baries are located eg.Betjan, Khorijan, Tingamira, Manipuri, Lushai jat etc. A dozen of companies and estates became very popular by producing the seeds. The seeds of those jats were sold both within and outside India, from Africa to Argentina. The jats were the sole source of tea planting materials which sustained the tea industry in many parts of the world for nearly 100 years. In fact, many countries would not have reached the present advanced state of development without these jats. The vegetatively propagated clones and progenies of clonal crosses (Clonal seeds) developed in different countries are replacing gradually the old jats. However, these jat populations are acting as a foundation stocks for clonal selection and plant improvement programmes in tea.
Now you have come to know what a Jat is. Due to the hybrid ancestry ofthe parents, Jats are mixtures of phenotypes. One phenotype is distinguished from another phenotype based on the vegetative features. The word jat was also used to separate on the basis of foliar characters, what appears to be distinct type. Thus, the so-called indigenous Assam Jats were described as “light leaved” in contrast to “dark leaved” Manipuri jat. The phenotypes are assigned either to the Assam or the China race taking into account the aggregate vegetative features of the constituent phenotypes. The seed jats of Assam, can be assigned to the Assam race because they have prominent assamica characters.
Now question may arise, can we equate a Jat of teawith a horticultural variety or cultivar? No, botanical or horticultural nomenclature is not applicable for describing a Jat of tea. In a cultivar or variety of plant, the composition of the cultivar must remain unchanged over the years, but in case of Jat, the composition may not remain the same, and invariably it varies. In a seed barie, the parent seed bearers are seen to undergo changes over the years due to replanting of some dead plants, or extension of the barie, or changing the site of the barie to a new site without any change in the name. These activities change the character of the jats during the life of the seed barie. According to international convention, the same name should apply to all closely similar jats, but many jats having close phenotypic similarity are known by different names.