Experimental Tea Plantation on Mount Zhornina

In April 2021, changing many hands, with the help of many good people, a sample of tea made by a team of specialists working on an experimental tea plantation on Mount Zhornina (Transcarpathia, Ukraine) reached us. We tried and described this tea — and almost simultaneously with the first tasting of it, we got in touch with Maksym Malyhin, the head of the ”Zhornina Mountain” volunteer project and one of the initiators of the Ukrainian tea project. Maxim was sitting in a greenhouse preparing tea cuttings, we were located at our home drinking tea — in short, the situation was conducive to a long conversation. The recording of the entire conversation (it lasts about an hour, in Russian, with Ukrainian subtitles) is at your service; in addition, we extracted key information about the tea project on Mount Zhornina and about the “Tea Grown in Europe” Association from the interview, and compressed it into a small write-up.

Maksim Malygin at Zhornina Mountain tea plantation. Photo: Maksim Malygin

Tea was planted on a slope of Mount Zhornina (Chervona Gora, Red Mountain) in 1949 as part of a series of experiments on growing tea in Transcarpathia. When around 1956 the Transcarpathian tea project was curtailed, almost all tea plantations in the region (their total area had reached 70 hectares by that time) were uprooted and plowed up. But one experimental plot on Mount Zhornina, with an area of ​​about two hectares, was left for an experiment with growing tea under a forest canopy — this one has survived, because the forest has survived.

In the late 1960s, the site was transferred to the forestry station under the patronage of the Uzhgorod University’s Biology Department. Under the scientific and economic guidance of university specialists, the plantation existed until the 1990s. Then the financing of the project stopped, the plantation was no longer monitored, the fence that protected it collapsed — and people began to dig up and take away tea bushes. The same bushes that grew from seeds sown in 1949. That is, at the time of the unauthorized transplanting, they were 40-50 years old. No tea bush will survive a transplantation at this age. It is technically extremely difficult, the bush has a large root system, so transplanting inevitably leads to chopping off most of the roots. The survival rate of such bushes after transplanting is less than one percent.

Despite the fact that all the mature bushes on the plantation were destroyed, the shoots of tea plants remained on it. These shoots comprise the plantation on Mount Zhornina at the present time. The area of ​​the plantation is 1.4 hectares; 292 tea bushes (as of spring 2021) are growing on its cleared part.

Zhornina Mountain tea plantation. Photo: Maksim Malygin

Judging by morphological characteristics, 5-6 different tea varieties grow on Mount Zhornina, but it has not yet been possible to precisely define these varieties. From documents it is known that in Transcarpathia they planted Georgian No. 2 tea variety, Kangra variety and sowed seeds from the Gergian Zugdidi region, but nothing more. The most obvious thing that can be done to accurately identify tea varieties is DNA analysis, but this is still a very difficult task, also because in the existing DNA bases there are simply no varieties close to those that grow in Transcarpathia.

Zhornina Mountain tea plantation. Photo: Maksim Malygin

Nowadays the tea plantation on Mount Zhornina operates as a classic experimental site. It works out technologies for growing and producing tea to further distribute them in other regions of Ukraine and European countries. This approach also ensures the care of the plantation — without this care the tea dies out, it is enough to move 15 meters away from the well-groomed area to see evidence. In an uncleared area, everything is worse — the branches of the bushes are thinner and frost-killing is more widespread.

Production experiments on the plantation are now being carried out mainly with baked twisted oolong tea. Such teas are a relatively new product for European tea projects, but they quickly become mainstream as, with careful execution, they retain the terroir characteristics of the raw material well. The manifestation of the terroir will be one of the main tasks for European teas after the basic tasks associated with the cultivation and production of tea in Europe are solved.

Maksym Malyhin, head of the Gora Zhornina volunteer project, is a member of the Tea Grown in Europe Association; and the work of the tea plantation on Mount Zhornina is coordinated with other European tea projects.

The non-profit Association “Tea Grown in Europe” was established in 2016. The Association solves a number of tasks, from routine (joint purchase of equipment, exchange of information, joint events) and ending with the backbone issues for the emerging European tea farming. For example, the Association is engaged in giving tea the status of a subsidized agricultural crop. Currently, tea does not formally belong to such crops in Europe. This, among other things, prevents tea farmers from receiving farm subsidies — and one of the Association’s global goals is to change this situation.

Transplants for Zhornina Mountain tea plantation. Photo: Maksim Malygin

Another area of ​​the Association’s work is the development of tea growing technologies in Europe and the creation of a set of models for building tea businesses, including compact ones that work at the intersection of industries (for example, here tea business models with a large tourist component are possible). We are talking not only about generalizing the experience already accumulated by European tea farmers, but also about updating technologies developed in the recent past by Soviet tea specialists.

Tea in Europe does not grow very well on its own. It requires some care and maintenance. For example, most of the attempts made to grow tea in the open ground in different regions of Ukraine have ended in failure so far. But both these failures and the single Ukrainian projects that have succeeded (e.g. in the Nikolaev region, near Uman) make it possible to accumulate productive experience, which will eventually turn into purely technical recommendations on completely unexpected things sometimes. For example, in some regions of Europe, a very urgent issue is the protection of tea plants from  artiodactyls eating leaves and moles ruining the root system.

Thus, the work of the experimental tea plantation on Mount Zhornina is aimed at solving a whole range of problems. They include the preservation of the professional heritage accumulated by our tea predecessors, the development of tea business models, the preparation of planting material and, of course, the actual cultivation and production of tea.

Maxim, colleagues, good luck to you!

P.S. By the way. Maksym Malyhin is one of the key members of the Teatips community, who took an active part in its formation and development. Our first acquaintance with tea from Mount Zhornina happened back in 2016 — we also have a small video on this topic (in Russian).

Maksym Malyhin, Olga Nikandrova & Denis Shumakov. Teatips.info. 2021