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Tocklai banks on wild tea plants for better brew

Jorhat, June 26: The Tocklai Experimental Station is now looking at wild teas to increase the gene pool and, thereby, improve the quality of tea.

Tocklai scientists have ventured deep into Singpho territory in Tinsukia district of Assam and Bordumsa in Arunachal Pradesh to collect and preserve the germplasm of wild teas. Their next forage will be into Nagaland.

Tocklai director N. Muraleedharan said though the research station had a collection of over 2,000 germplasm in its bank, this was the first time that species of wild tea was being collected for conservation of germplasm.

“The team, comprising D. Borthakur, a plant breeder, P. Barua, an advisory officer, and S.M. Borah, research fellow, first made a survey of the places near Margherita where the Singphos live and found that wild teas were under threat because of adoption of high-yielding tea clones for cultivation purpose or just to clear the areas where the teas are growing in the wild,” Muraleedharan said.

The scientists have collected 200 cuttings from 11 trees and seeds from five trees, which have been planted in the nursery here. The tree cuttings will grow into bushes and the seeds germinate into plants in three to four years.

The director said the buds of a tea plant collected from Bordumsa showed that it was highly pubescent (hairy) and, therefore, of good quality.

“Some of these trees were found to grow 10 feet to 20 feet in height and were 60-70 years old. It was also found that these trees were mostly free of disease and pests. It could be that these trees are of good quality but are not good yielders. In that case, hybrid clones can be created by drawing on the good genes and joining them to get high-yielding plants,” he said, adding that a lot of research has to be done to determine all the molecular markers.

Advisory officer P. Barua said in their search for wild teas they had met Beesa Nong Singpho, the descendant of Beesa Gam, the Singpho who had first given a concoction of tea leaf crushed and boiled in water to Englishman Major Robert Bruce in 1823.

Helped by their guide Nischit Ompong Singpho, the scientists collected samples from Ketetong village in Margherita. From there they went to Uloop village, Intheam village, Doarmora (where Beesa Nong Singpho lives) near Pengeri, and then onto Bordumsa.

“The Singphos claim that they had brought the teas with them, cultivated them and harvested them from atop elephant back when they had come from the Indo-Tibetan belt in the late 1800s but we are yet to ascertain this,” Barua said.

“While many of the trees grew to quite a height, some of them had been chopped down and were found to be cultivated along with high-yielding tea bushes by cultivators,” he said.

Muraleedharan said they had also asked the management of very old tea estates to retain cuttings of any good tea bushes which they had been growing on their estates for long and were in need of replacing. It could be promising material for conservation and research.