In the Garden: For All the Tea in Charleston

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By Charles Kidder

If you were to conjure up an image of a tea plantation, I’d bet that it might involve misty green hills somewhere in South Asia, where much of the world’s tea is indeed grown. But what about the steamy lowlands of coastal South Carolina?

Strictly speaking, tea is a drink made from the leaves of only one plant, Camellia sinensis, sometimes known as the tea plant. Other drinks that are produced by steeping plant leaves, flowers or twigs in water are properly known as infusions, tisanes or herbal teas. Just to confuse things a bit more, true teas may also be flavored via the addition of other plant material.

Tea has been consumed in China for thousands of years; in colonial times it was introduced to the West. Commercial tea production was long dominated by China, but eventually an enterprising Scottish botanist, Robert Fortune, was able to smuggle plants out and bring them to India. Once an expensive luxury, increased production now permitted all classes to acquire the tea habit.

All types of tea—black, green, white, oolong, etc.—are produced from the leaves of one species, although there are at least two subspecies of Camellia sinensis and hundreds of varieties. The differences among these types of teas owe to varying processing techniques.  And as with any natural product, differences in climate and soil type will also produce differences in taste.

As you might guess, China and India battle it out for leadership in tea production, with each country accounting for 25-30 percent of the world’s total, depending on just what year is being considered. But which country’s residents consume the most tea per capita? I was a bit surprised to learn that it is Turkey, where the average citizen guzzles 7.52 kg a year. The best a European country can do is 3.22 kg a year for the folks in Ireland. But the good ol’ U.S. of A.?  A paltry 0.33 kg a head, 80 percent of it as iced tea.

Given our relatively low consumption of tea— especially if you ignore the iced variety—it’s not too surprising that there’s not much commercial tea production in the U.S. There are literally a handful of tea farms, and some of those are essentially family operations selling to a local gift shop. The only one of any size, the Charleston Tea Plantation covers 127 acres on Wadmalaw Island, about twenty miles southwest of its namesake city.

Charleston Tea Plantation got its start in 1963 when old tea plants were moved from an abandoned plantation north of Charleston to a former potato farm.  A research facility for the first twenty-four years, a new owner (and third-generation tea taster) converted it to commercial production in 1987.  It was purchased by the Bigelow Tea Company in 2003, providing a much-needed infusion of cash and marketing expertise, but the plantation’s crop is still sold exclusively as American Classic Tea.

If you are in Charleston or anywhere else in the South Carolina Low Country, the plantation merits a visit.  You can do so for free, although an optional trolley ride through the fields costs a few dollars.  The tea plants are lined out in dense rows, with 320 varieties under cultivation.  A tea plant growing under ideal conditions can reach twenty feet, but these are kept at about forty inches to facilitate harvesting.  Only the top two or three leaves on the new flush of growth are harvested; cuttings are made several times from May through September.  Instead of backbreaking hand picking, a converted cotton picker makes quick work of the harvest.  Shortly after the last picking, the tea plants start to bloom in October.

Adjacent to the plantation’s gift shop—no, you can’t avoid that nowadays—is the actual factory where the tea is processed.  You can observe the various ovens and dryers from an observation platform while watching explanatory videos. And back in the gift shop, you can drink all the hot or cold tea you want gratis.

Charleston Tea Plantation prides itself on being a green operation. Tea plants are generally pest- and disease-free, and no herbicides or pesticides are used on the farm. Most of the plants’ water needs come from the sky, although ponds can provide supplemental irrigation if required.

So, can we grow our own tea plants and make our own tea in Albemarle County?  Given that Camellia sinensis is hardy to Zone 6b, the answer is “yes.”  The tea plant’s cultural requirements are similar to most camellias: acid soil, moderate moisture and partial shade are best. Notwithstanding, full sun is also okay, since the Charleston Tea Plantation has their plants out under the blazing South Carolina rays.

If you’re growing the tea plant to actually make the brew, one shrub can fill the needs of a single tea drinker.  If you’re trying to provide for a whole family, consider planting a short hedge. I have not made tea directly from the plant myself, but as with everything, you can find instructions online. One source of information is Camellia Forest Nursery in Chapel Hill, which sells three varieties of the tea plant, along with many other species and varieties of Camellias and other hard-to-find ornamentals.

Speaking of ornamentals, I was somewhat surprised that Michael Dirr, the authority on woody plants, stated that C. sinensis is “one of the great, unsung treasures of the Camellia world.” Perhaps he was extolling its superior hardiness, but in one man’s opinion, it comes up short for showiness when compared to most camellias seen in gardens. The 1- to 1½-inch white flowers are partially hidden by the foliage, and the overall shape of the plant is unprepossessing. Still, you could put many worse things in your garden. Sorry for damning with faint praise.

Even if you chose not to grow your own tea plant, a trip to the Charleston Tea Plantation in fall would be worthwhile. I was able to sample the most intense tea I had ever tasted without having to leave the country.

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