Many people know that camellias can be a colorful addition to the garden. But not so many realize that we are also enjoying another camellia, in our tea cups. Indeed, all of the different types of tea we drink (black, oolong, green and white) are made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis, the most common camellia grown around the world.
Camellia sinensis originated in southeastern Asia, and is one of many types of camellias cultivated over the centuries for form and function. In subtropical to temperate regions, camellias are natively found as an under story bush or small tree.
However, Camellia sinensis is grown commercially for tea under widely varying conditions in latitudes between 45 degrees north and 35 degrees south. Two main types are cultivated: Camellia Sinensis var sinensis and var assamica – the former in more temperate regions and the later most suited to conditions in the tropics. High elevation subtropical mountains in places like Taiwan, Southern China or India are thought to provide conditions for growing the best tasting tea, with substantial rainfall, cool spring weather and moderate winters.
The best climates for tea in the United States include the “Camellia Belt” of the southeast and southern states. Here in the North Carolina Piedmont, our soils and climate are ideal for all types of camellias, including tea. Starting with the first-flush in late March or early April, our cool, wet spring weather can yield wonderful flavored teas.
We have been growing tea in our garden for many years, testing which varieties do the best in our local climate. Over the past four decades our collection of plants, founded on the camellia species collection of Dr. Clifford Parks (professor emeritus at UNC Chapel Hill), has grown in number and size. At the same time, we have developed a passion for learning about tea culture and processing techniques, making tea and new friends in our pursuit.
Across the country, people have been developing a new appreciation for the health and flavorful qualities of tea, ‘the drink’, while gardeners and local farmers are discovering tea, ‘the plant’.
In the Triangle, there are several small farms starting to grow tea. At RambleRill Farm in Hillsborough, Jane Saiers reports that her four-year old bushes are ready to harvest for the first time this coming season. Jane looks forward to learning the different techniques in making teas that she can sell at market.
It takes time to establish a tea garden; plants require three to five years to mature before harvesting. Once established, tea plants take limited maintenance and can form a nice hedge in a residential garden or alongside a field, forest, or fence.
When they start to grow in March, tea can be made from the new growth (two leaves and a bud). Processing can be as simple as drying the leaves in the shade; or, with a bit of heat and practice, one can make a green, oolong or black tea.
Camellia sinensis is easy to grow in our area, and can yield delicious, homegrown teas to be enjoyed year round.
Featured photo – Camellia leaves / Christine Parks
Christine Parks is the East Coast representative in the US League of Tea Growers, and is committed to supporting local gardeners and small-scale farmers in growing tea. Along with her husband David, owner of Camellia Forest Nursery, Christine owns Tea Flower Research and writes a tea blog at www.teaflowergardens.com. She can be reached at [email protected]