By Kokila Dhakal
Ilam, Apr. 14: It has been 158 years since tea cultivation began in Nepal. Governor (Bada Hakim) Gajraj Singh Thapa planted the first saplings in Ilam in 1864 and since then, tea has grown to become arguably the most popular drink in the country. However in all this time, Nepal has not developed its native variety of tea – until now.
The first tea plants planted in Nepal were brought from China some 160 years ago. These days though, farmers also cultivate Indian varieties. And now, after more than a century and a half of growing the cash crop, the Agriculture Research Centre (ARC) of Dhankuta and the National Tea and Coffee Development Board (NTCDB) have begun work to develop a Nepali variety of tea.
Dr. Govinda Prasad Timsina, head of the ARC, Dhankuta, informed that the Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC) and NTCDB recently signed an agreement to develop a native type of tea plant. Under the agreement, Dr. Timsina along with Dr. Himal Timsina of the National Commercial Agriculture Research Programme (NCARP) and Indra Adhikari, chief of NTCDB’s Tea Expansion Project (TEP), Phikkal, studied and selected 12 of the oldest plants from the Ilam and Soktim tea estates.
Why oldest? Because the older the plants, the greater they will differ from the varieties in other countries. “The buds that first sprout from the seed are similar to their parents which in our case are similar to the foreign kinds. However, as they grow, they adapt to the local climate and develop unique Nepali characteristics,” ARC head Timsina said.
“We have requested the estates to conserve these 12 plants so we can begin developing a native variety from them,” Timsina said, explaining that these plants needed to be protected as parent plants even after Nepali type is developed. Preliminary work on developing a Nepali species of tea had been carried out five years ago at the TEP office in Phikkal under the leadership of Darjeeling tea expert SK Pradhan. However, everything stopped after Pradhan died three years ago. “Now, we will be taking Pradhan’s study forward,” Adhikari said. “We will build on Pradhan’s work,” he added. “We are in the process of research and will look into registering it soon.”
The Nepali tea will be sent to the Seed Quality Control Centre for registration. “It will take around 10 years to prepare our own kind of tea but if everything goes according to plan, we can prepare our native tea in five years,” said Timsina.