Tea has been a part of America for as long as there has been an America. In fact, tea was so popular in the colonies that a tax on it led to one of the most iconic events of early American history: the Boston Tea Party. Tea was a popular drink in the early days of this country, and there were many attempts at commercial tea production in this country as early as the turn of the 18th Century. While these efforts were mostly unsuccessful, tea has remained one of the most popular drinks in America. In fact, regardless of where you live, tea is the drink that most often accompanies American meals. My wife is an avid tea drinker. I, on the other hand, am a coffee drinker. However, I still enjoy a good cup of hot tea during the cooler months of the year.
Commercial tea production in the United States has been tried several times in the past, sometimes with good success. Currently there is a resurgence of interest in small-acreage tea production in the South, and Louisiana State University (LSU) is quite involved in helping small farms develop this burgeoning industry.
The plant from which this popular beverage is derived is a species of camellia. It is a different species from the popular and common ornamental japonica and sasanqua camellias that are grown for their beautiful blooms. The botanical name for the tea plant is Camellia sinensis. There are two varieties of C. sinensis — var. assamica and var. sinensis. Assamica originated in the Assam region of India, while the sinensis variety is from China. The assamica variety has larger leaves compared to the sinensis variety, and it is mainly used for processing into black teas, while the sinensis varieties are reportedly better for making milder green and white teas.
Unfortunately, the ornamental camellia varieties grown in our landscapes for their beautiful flowers are not suitable for tea because they do not have the unique stimulating and aromatic compounds found in C. sinensis. C. sinensis shrubs bear small, pure-white flowers with a cluster of yellow stamens in the center, and even though they are not as showy as japonica or sasanqua camellias, they are still pretty enough to attract bees and other pollinators.
If you can grow camellias, then you can grow your own tea plants. Years ago, I obtained a single tea plant, which I grew mainly as a horticultural curiosity. It grew well in a mostly shady section of my Tyler garden. It has large leaves, which lead me to believe it is the C. sinensis var. assamica type. By the time I decided to experiment with making tea, it had grown quite large and needed to be cut back for easier harvesting of the new, tender leaves that are processed for making tea.
A few years later, I obtained a couple of small, seedling tea plants at a seminar given by Buddy Lee. My interest in growing tea for home consumption was beginning to blossom. A year after this, I obtained my fourth tea plant, which I now believe is a C. sinensis var. sinensis type. These plants have now grown large enough to be harvested. So, I decided to learn how to process the leaves into tea. It takes about three years of good growth before harvesting leaves. And under good growing conditions, you might eventually be able to harvest new flushes of leaves up to three or more times per year.
Growing tea plants is similar to growing ornamental camellias. The soil should be at least moderately well-drained, on the acidic side and not prone to drought. However, once well-established, tea plants can tolerate moderate-drought conditions. The plants will grow better, of course, if irrigated in dry times of the year. As with growing any kind of shrub, always use mulch to help reduce soil evaporation and control unwanted weeds.
Tea researcher Dr. Yan Chen, Professor at the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, Hammond Research Station, told me that the large-leaf camellia will grow better than the small-leaf types if the soil pH is in the 6.5 to 6.7 range. If you live where the soil is not conducive for camellias, try growing them in large containers. I’d suggest using 50-gallon containers filled with a good organic soil mixed with 3/8-inch fine pine bark and peat moss. The large container size will help maintain a stable root temperature and keep the soil moisture from fluctuating. If your water pH is high, harvest and use rainwater. These are similar conditions you would use to grow blueberries in containers.
If you have room, you should try to grow at least five plants. This will ensure you have enough leaves to harvest to keep yourself stocked in tea. Ideally, grow them in a group, planting them about three feet apart so that they will grow into each other. According to Dr. Chen, the root microbial community provides mutual benefit to the plants when grouped together.
In the South, tea plants grow in both full-sun and in partial-sun locations. Full sun will require more particular attention to soil moisture. I am happy to report that my four tea plants came through winter storm Uri without any dieback, even though it got down to zero degrees.
If you start with small, young plants, trim them frequently during the growing season each year to encourage branching. During the first few years, use compost and low rates of organic fertilizer, along with mulch. Your goal is to develop what tea growers call a “harvest table” by keeping your shrubs pruned to about three or four feet tall. This will enable easy harvesting. By the fifth year of cultivation, you should be able to pluck up to 1,000 tips per bush.
Once you have new flushes of leaves, it is time to harvest and process them into a form suitable for drinking. How many leaves you pluck from each branch tip and how you process the tea determine what kind of tea you make. For black tea, you can remove up to three or maybe four leaves plus the bud. Green tea is made from the unopened buds plus the leaves next to the bud. A very mild white tea is made only from the bud and the first young leaf. The young, tender shoots can easily be plucked by hand. If it doesn’t snap easily from the stem, it is too old and should not be used.
Now what do you do with those leaves? This is where it gets a bit complicated, and I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to do very small batches harvested from my four plants. The internet was not particularly helpful for small, home production. How the leaves are handled after plucking determines what kind of tea you make, whether black (some call it red), green or white. There are other types of tea, such as oolong, that require different kinds of steps in their processing.
After having processed a few small batches of tea, I have learned that while there are basic steps to follow, there are also many ways and variations of making tea. Part of the fun is experimenting and learning what works best. I have made white tea, which requires the least amount of processing, and also green and black tea, which require more processing with some different steps. I’ll try to break it down into the basics.
Regardless of the type of tea you plan to make, there are several sequential steps that must be done in order to arrive at the final product. They include plucking, withering, inactivating by heat, rolling (except for white tea) and drying. Black tea involves an additional step before final drying.
The first step after “plucking” the young, tender leaves is called “withering.” This is done immediately after harvesting the leaves. During this step, the harvested leaves begin to lose moisture to make them pliable for the next processing steps. How long to wither depends on the type of tea you want to make, but usually lasts between six to 12 hours for green tea, 12 to 24 hours for black tea, and up to two or three days for white tea.
For green tea, the next step inactivates the leaves from oxidizing by a brief heating. This is done by either quickly heating in a dry frying pan or very quickly steaming the leaves for less than one minute. In this step, take care that you do not cook the leaves. Dr. Chen prefers steaming the leaves for green tea for about 12 seconds and then immediately cooling the leaves in an ice bucket. She then uses a salad spinner to eliminate excess water before the next step.
For green and black tea, the next step in the process is referred to as “rolling.” Commercial tea growers use machines to repeatedly bruise the leaves to further remove moisture from the leaves and to oxidize the leaves for black tea. This step is what brings out the characteristic tea flavor. For small-batch home production, I use clean muslin cloth into which the leaves are placed and formed into a ball. Now the hardest part — rolling and firmly pressing repeatedly until the juices from the leaves start to ooze out onto the cloth and board. I read that some people use an object like a washboard to help rupture the leaves’ cells, exposing them to air, where they are oxidized. This step requires repeated opening of the cloth, loosening up the ball of leaves, and then more rolling.
Black tea undergoes an additional step before finally “drying.” Spreading them out in a thin layer on a tray for several hours allows them to undergo more oxidation. Finally, each type of tea needs to be dried under low-to-medium temperature (180 to 220 degrees), whereby they become dry and crispy, ready to be stored for future use.
When I was researching how to process tea, I was somewhat overwhelmed because it seemed that every reference and webpage had slightly different steps for the different types of teas, and these references are typically geared to the commercial grower. When you get to the point where you are ready to make tea, seek further advice geared toward growing and making tea at home in small batches. I personally recommend Grow Your Own Tea — The Complete Guide to Cultivating, Harvesting and Preparing by Christine Parks and Susan M. Walcott, a Timber Press publication written for folks like me.
If you get inspired to grow your own tea, the first step is to find tea plants, which may not be so easy. The only retail nursery I have been able to find that carries Camellia sinensis is Arbor Gate Nursery in Tomball, which in early summer 2022 had a small number of plants. There are also several online sources. I have been wanting more plants, so last fall I collected seed from my plants and now have about 15 seedlings that will go in the ground this fall or next spring. Growing plants from seed might be another option for you to obtain a larger number of plants, though it will take a few more years to begin harvesting leaves.
I hope I may have inspired some of you to try your hand at growing your own Texas tea. Even though home production is small and slow, I have thoroughly enjoyed finding, growing and caring for the plants. Making the tea has been a fun and rewarding do-it-yourself (DIY) project.
If you are an adventurous gardener who likes to try new things, I cannot think of a project more rewarding than growing and making your own tea
By Keith Hansen
Smith County Horticulturist, Emeritus
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service
Owner, East Texas Gardening