Traveling from place to place, I often marvel at the luckiness of creatures who call some of the best places the world has to offer their humble homes. A mere human couldn’t scrounge up enough of anything to land themselves the right to set up shop in Spain’s Alhambra. Yet a number of pigeons air their morning coos over the Sierra Nevada Mountains everyday, nestled among the bright mosaics of that ancient palace. And just imagine the view those plump marmots enjoy each morning, hunkered down like carpet across the alpine terrain of the Rocky Mountain’s higher elevations.
Korea is home to many a marvelous home for living creatures of the non-human variety. While most inhabitants of Seoul’s urban sprawl are packed like sardines into little boxes piled high into the air, critters across the Korean countryside must get a good laugh at all us silly humans. Like the chipmunks scampering around a temple-side bamboo grove of Mudeungsan Provincial Park, or the bees feasting on cherry blossoms in Gyeongju’s Bulguksa Temple, the gentle little leaves of Boseong’s tea plantations rank high on the list of living things passing their days in a to-die-for setting.
Boseong’s colonial history
And the truth is, some probably did die in order for Boseong’s green tea plantations to grow. Although green tea’s presence in Korea dates back to the Silla Dynasty, green tea did not find a place to grow in Boseong’s soil until recent decades. The growing potential of Boseong’s fertile landscape went unsown until Japan occupied and began looking for land and labor to supply the Japanese people with tea to sip. Thus the green tea plantations were born, expressly to serve the families of resented foreign colonizers. During the Korean War, these painstakingly groomed tea leaves were ravaged along with the rest of the country. For years after Korea won its independence, the once-carefully tended rows were left ignored and eventually overgrown. Nearly 50 years later, a Korean entrepreneur, took control of the Daehan plantation and harvesting resumed. Once one plantation was cultivated and thrived, both ecologically and financially, other sprang up too. Now, the town is a world capital of green tea, and the country’s largest plantation grows there, with slope upon slope of smaller farms surrounding it.
To look at the serene rows of the Daehan Dawon Plantation today, the country’s largest green tea farm and a popular tourist destination, you would never guess elements of its tumultuous past embody Japan’s brutal opporession of Korea’s land and people. All visitors are funneled through an entrance starting at a massive asphalt parking lot. But the earthly reminders of honking buses and busy streets end there. Soon a tree-lined path of towering cedars envelope visitors, softening the sun and sounds of the outer world. Soon, you emerge into an expansive view of sun-drenched green tea bushes, perfectly snipped into graceful semicircles unfolding across the hillside’s contours. Like uniform rolls of Crayola green play dough rolled by a precise child’s hands, their playful elegance brings to mind pages of Dr. Seuss and the whimsical topiaries of Chris Van Allsburg.
All about tea
But up close there’s nothing uniform about these carefully trimmed bushes, at least not to the discerning eye. Often that expert eye belongs to the stooped and weathered ajummas (elderly Korean women) who traditionally pick the leaves, one by one. Picked in a similar fashion, those flavorful leaves have been steeped in water and then enjoyed by humans for about 5,000 years (Mayo Clinic). Tea’s popularity has certainly not waned over time, and “today tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world, second only to water” (University of Maryland Medical Center).
With so much history behind it, it’s impressive that the tea slipping down thirsty throats for generations, come dominantly from one plant: the Camelliea sinensis. A hearty perennial evergreen bush, the Camelliea sinensis gives birth to the same leaves used to make green tea, oolong tea, and black tea. The difference lies in the processing. Green tea leaves are unfermented, while oolong tea leaves are partly fermented, and black tea leaves are fully fermented. Green tea’s famed health benefits also lie in the processing. Green tea is full of helpful little guys called polyphenols, “chemicals with potent antioxidant properties” (UMMC). As leaves ferment, the polyphenol content decreases and the caffeine levels increase. So, the pure and unfermented leaves of green tea keep all the good stuff, antioxidants, while having lower levels of the not-so-good stuff, caffeine.
The classifications of green tea don’t end there, though.
Timing matters too. Tea leaves are harvested about three to four times each year in Korea, affecting the quality and taste of the tea. Those leaves plucked from their stems before Gokwoo (April 20) are of the highest grade offering a mild and fresh taste. Only weeks later, as new leaves fully open to the fresh mountain air, Sejak tea is harvested, one of the most popular teas, often called Jakseol, or bird’s tongue, for the shape of its leaf. As the weather warms and the middle of May approaches, Joongjak tea is ripe for the picking, brown leaves that fill teapots with a thicker flavor. For those with an appreciation for flavors a bit puckery, the green tea plant offers the more mature leaves of the Daejak (often called Ipha) tea. Into June and July, old leaves soaked in water and often served in place of drinking water, are harvested until June and July.
And then the stooped ajummas raised in a tougher time and oozing practicality must wait for the bushes to go about the business of growing leaves anew to be harvested next year. While the plants are quietly at work, the Daehan Daewon Plantation does not stay quiet. The plants become more flavorful growing slowly in higher elevations.
As the tea takes its precious time to grow and becomes packed with flavor in the meantime, a steady stream of tourists take the bus to Boseong, often getting off at Daehan Plantation, walking through the tree-lined path, and pausing in front of the same striking landscape we paused before. A network of trails wind around the sprawling plantation, but we opted to head up to a small summit at a central hilltop on the plantation. Spring is a perfect time to visit, with cherry blossoms and magnolia trees in full bloom offering a pleasant interruption to the terraced green tea rows. We weren’t the only people to take advantage of this ideal timing, but the crowds were tame compared to the jam-packed trails of some national parks I’ve visited. Rarely did the mild crowds ruin the serene day, and with the exception of a Korean couple asking me to vacate an ideal picture spot beneath a cherry blossom tree, which I awkwardly mistook for an invitation to join the picture, we were left to ourselves.
Many factors must converge to make land ideal for green tea. Standing atop the peak surrounded with a view of the area’s terrain for miles, you can see most of what makes Boseong an ideal place for tea to grow. About 1,500 millimeters of rain drops need to fall each year, and if you’ve ever spent monsoon season in Korea, you know that’s hardly a problem. The soil is best if it is porous and permeable, the weather must be cool but have a great daily temperature range, and high humidity is a must. With soil slipping beneath our feet on the way up, surprised by the midday heat of a day that began chilly, we shed our sweatshirts. Check, check, and check. Ocean breezes don’t hurt either, and as we took our last steps up the steepening trail, the turquoise blue of the nearby sea shone. Check. Mother Nature must have been thirsty when she cooked up Boseong, with all the requisite factors perfectly in place. There’s plenty to bring you to this area. Gwangju’s Medeungsan Provincial Park was delightful, the Damyang bamboo forest is a popular destination, and there are plenty of beaches to lounge on. But don’t let yourself leave without a trip to one of Boseong’s green tea plantations.
There’s more where that came from. Head on over to Flickr for more photos from Boseong and Gwangju.