Although the name might suggest otherwise, Narcissus Oolong tea (Shui Xian) is in no way related, either in taste or fragrance, to the flower made famous in Greek mythology. Rather, it is a cultivar of the Camellia sinensis plant grown traditionally in the Wuyi Mountains of China, known for its mellow taste and orchid-like fragrance. In its aged form, it is one of the most prestigious teas in the world.
The Shui Xian plant hails from the Jianyang area in the Fujian province in China (these days it is also grown in other places, including Taiwan), where it was introduced hundreds of years ago, and grown abundantly by farmers during the Qing Dynasty. Subsequently, the tea became a major export commodity and was shipped to places like Hong Kong, Singapore, and even San Francisco. Shui Xian grows at 800 meters above sea level, is easy to grow since it can resist extreme temperatures, and produces a large amount of big leaves. These are then oxidized between 40 to 60 percent and heavily roasted above charcoal fire, giving the tea its darker, amber color.
There are three main varieties of Narcissus oolong. The first is ‘Lao Cong Shui Xian’, a tea made from older tea trees (at least about 60s years), giving the tea a stronger fragrance depending on age. The second is ‘aged Shui Xian’, where the leaves are aged and repeatedly baked for several decades to preserve its taste. The final one is ‘Zhangping Shui Xian’, a tea made from trees found in the Zhangping area in Southern Fujian, where it is often processed as a green oolong.
What makes the vintage variety of Narcissus tea particularly special, and expensive, is that the process of storing the tea and keeping it in perfect condition is quite labor intensive, with very few making it more than 30 years. Additionally, during the 1980s the old Shui Xian trees were considered out of fashion leaving many to be shopped down in favor of new cultivars. In other words, the older trees, which produce the highest quality of leaves, are also in short supply. It is no wonder then that vintage Narcissus tea has been able to fetch up to 3,250 dollars a pound.