Camellia sinensis var. assamica is the tea variety that is associated with Assam, as the name attests.

I have also seen allusions and suggestions that this is the same as the "Da Ye" (large leaf) variety that is used in Yunnan for pu-erh and some red/black teas. Some tea merchants certainly describe their Yunnan teas as being from assamica plants, and the Assam jungles are not too far from Yunnan so this seems credible.

Is there a reliable source that confirms that the assamica variety is the same as the variety from which pu-erh tea is made? Or is the reality more complex, with most commercially grown pu-erh tea being a hybrid of var. assamica and other varieties?

Wikipedia pages about tea are currently poorly referenced and I tend to disregard most of the claims on the pages related to tea. I am looking for references to scholarly books, pointers to trade literature, credible news sites, or quotes from acknowledged experts.

(Note that I am not interested in growing tea plants, this is purely a question about provenance of the foodstuff.)

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    It's probably worth pointing out classifying and differentiating between plant cultivars can be very murky territory. If two cultivars are exactly the same it's easy enough to answer, but sometimes they're different but no one has bothered to "officially" notice and give one a new name. – Cascabel Sep 10 '13 at 16:49

I find nothing to indicate it's a different cultivar, and several sources saying that it's var. assamica. My favorite couple:

This doesn't rule out the possibility that there are subdivisions of assamica, leading to some tiny differences between the plants. But I can find no evidence of such subdivisions. Further, given the degree to which things vary simply based on the region they were grown in (due to climate and soil) and the effects of the subsequent processing, even if there are actual differences in the plants (beyond those caused by their environment), they're unlikely to be meaningful in terms of the tea you ultimately drink.

One caveat: this is all about what's most common. But people drink all kinds of things as tea, so it's possible that you'll find tea that was made from a different cultivar with the same processing as pu-erh, and it may well be labelled as pu-erh.

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    Interesting, that toxicology paper claims no ill effects on rats of being fed pu-erh extract of 2.5g per kg of body mass. That's a lot of tea! – András Salamon Sep 10 '13 at 20:56

For completeness, here are some further references in addition to Jefromi's excellent pointers:

  • from a paper in the Pakistani Journal of Botany 43(1), pp. 281–291, 2011 (PDF): "C. sinensis var. assamica is the main taxa for commercial cultivation in Yunnan... Yunnan ‘Pu’er’ Tea [is] made from fresh shoot of C. sinensis var. assamica", referencing several sources published in Yunnan; the authors study how the DNA of 181 var. assamica plants from all over Yunnan are related;

  • from eFloras (Flora of China): "Camellia sinensis var. assamica is the source of Puer (普洱) tea which is a black (fermented) tea from Yunnan."

and one inconclusive reference:

  • from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew website: "Camellia sinensis var. sinensis is probably native to western Yunnan, while C. sinensis var. assamica is native to the warmer parts of Assam (India), Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and southern China."
  • That first one is a great find! The "what's native" reference is indeed inconclusive - I've read elsewhere that the cultivation has been so extensive that it's now hard to tell what was native in some places. – Cascabel Sep 10 '13 at 21:52

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