Grow the Tea Plant

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Gardeners frequently enjoy growing many of the fruits and vegetables that they eat. By growing the tea plant they can also grow the leaves that make the tea we drink.

Tea is made with the dried leaves of Camellia sinensis a plant that has been cultivated for thousands of years. Most camellias grown in our area are chosen for decorative uses with larger flowers. Indigenous to china, Camellia sinensis variety sinensis is a shrub to small tree and is well adapted to our climate. The flowers are usually small and white growing from the tips of twigs and produced in autumn to early winter. Plants prefer acidic soil and once established are drought tolerant. They grow in full sun as well as shade.

Camellia sinensis variety assamica is called Indian tea and grows from shrub size to a large tree but is not as adapted to the southeastern US. Flowers are mostly single in leaf axils, and can be found from late autumn to early spring.

Historical records suggest that Camellia sinensis was first used in China as a medicinal plant. Trading of plants, seeds and knowledge was increased to wider areas as travel increased. Today tea is grown in over 100 countries. One tea plantation is located in the United States outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Green, black, white and oolong tea are all produced from this plant.

Many factors affect the taste of tea leaves including the plant variety, climate, stage of growth, season and where it is growing. Different types of tea are made using different types and amounts of processing before drying of the leaves. It takes about two years before a bush is mature enough to harvest a fair amount of leaves and in five years, regular harvest can begin.

Tea is made by harvesting the youngest stems including the two or three newest leaves. Different processing methods determines the taste of the tea. Oxidation begins once the leaf has been removed from the plant. A major difference in the types of tea comes from how the leaves are processed. Green tea includes steaming the leaves at a high temperature (480 to 570 degrees F) for 10 to 15 minutes. They must be stirred constantly to keep them from burning. The leaves are next dried for 10 to 15 minutes in an oven at a low temperature (212 to 302 degrees F).

Oolong tea leaves are allowed to wilt in full sun for up to one hour before moving to the shade for up to 10 hours. Stirring is suggested every hour before leaves are pan heated on low heat (121 to 149 degrees F) for 15 minutes. Oolong tea leaves are traditionally rolled up into thin strips or small balls.

White tea is processed the least amount of time. Leaves are left in a shady spot out of the sun for a couple of days before drying.

The processed leaves of all tea are best stored in dark, airtight containers to maintain freshness. Brewing is the next step to drink this beverage enjoyed by millions.