I’ve been growing some of my own food for 45 or so years now. Part of the fun of that experience is the opportunity to try growing new kinds of food. With varying success, I’ve tried most culinary herbs and quite a few different varieties of garden vegetables. Often, our favorite fruits and veggies are too tender for farm production, so the only way to have them is to grow them ourselves. This past October, we decided to expand our garden repertoire to include tea plants. Yes, you can use a vast array of native and herb plant leaves to brew tasty beverages, but our new plants are the source of what most tea drinkers consume: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, and Camellia sinensis var. assamica.
Cousins to better known ornamental camellias like C. sasanqua and C. japonica, tea camellias do not produce large colorful blooms. Their magic lies in their leaves, most of which contain an array of compounds that include methylxanthines – caffeine. Another tea cousin – C. ptilophylla – is sometimes called cocoa tea, because instead of containing caffeine, the leaves of this species contain a different compound, theobromine, which is also found in chocolate. Leaves of cocoa tea don’t taste like chocolate, but they do contain much lower levels of caffeine – a potential source of decaffeinated tea without the decaffeination process!
It is my understanding that certain tea varieties are best used to produce certain types of tea – black, green, and oolong, for example. But, ultimately, the tea created depends on how harvested leaves are processed. I’m planning to stick to trying to produce green tea, because the process is not as elaborate as for other types.
As with growing any perennial crop, whether nut or fruit trees or blueberry bushes, tea plants require several years to attain a size sufficient for harvesting. And it would take many more plants than I have room for to produce enough tea leaves to keep me supplied year-round with my favorite beverage. However, as with growing any special food crop, even a few cups annually of tea produced by my own plants are treats worth savoring as I bask in my tea-growing accomplishments.
Tea Growing in the Piedmont Region of NC
I’ve known about tea camellias for some time, because of a well-known nursery that’s just a fifteen-minute drive from my house: Camellia Forest Nursery. This nursery has been in business for over 40 years and is well known as the finest source of camellias on the US East Coast. Peruse their catalog of options at your own risk; they are intoxicatingly tempting. Even to this native-centric Piedmont gardener, these evergreen Asian beauties are hard to resist.
I have not succumbed to temptation mostly because the ornamental species require protection from deer munching, and because even with five acres, I’ve only got room for a finite number of plants. Tea camellias, I’ve recently learned, are more deer-resistant, because of the bitter compounds like caffeine in their leaves, compounds not present in their ornamental cousins. I’ve always known that Camellia Forest Nursery owner, David Parks, offered a few tea camellias, but I had missed the development of Camellia Forest Tea Gardens within the grounds of the nursery.
Camellia Forest Tea Gardens
As the name implies, Camellia Forest Tea Gardens offers an astonishing array of tea plant options – overwhelming is the word that comes to mind when you stand among the rows of blooming tea bushes on an autumn morning as I did this past October. Wonder Spouse and I attended a tea-planting workshop in early October to learn tea-planting methods first-hand from David Parks’ spouse, Christine Parks, the owner and energetic force behind the Tea Gardens. Christine is gainfully employed full time by a company in the Research Triangle Park. The Tea Gardens operation is her weekend job/passion/obsession.
With the help of equally passionate volunteers and two part-time employees, Christine continues to expand her tea fields. A new building being erected beside the fields will house tea-processing equipment on the lower level and a tea-tasting/sales/display area on the upper level. Even without that equipment, Christine and her team have been processing small batches of tea from the leaves harvested there. Throughout the year, she offers workshops on tea and also tea-tasting events, many of which are free. Visit their web site for more details.
Christine has literally written the book on tea growing. She and a friend and fellow tea fanatic, Susan M. Walcott, co-authored a book published by Timber Press, which you can order from them here.
In the workshop, we learned that if your land grows blueberries well, you can successfully grow tea camellias. In fact, the planting process that Christine demonstrated that day resembled the same process I use for planting blueberries and native azaleas. The keys are excellent drainage and somewhat acidic soils. Her biggest growing challenges are the occasional very cold winters we still get here in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, and voles, which tunnel into root systems and damage the bushes.
To deal with the occasional cold spells, she recommends C. sinensis var. sinensis, which handles most random freezes with no more than a few cold-damaged leaves. C. sinensis var. assamica is more cold-sensitive and has been killed to the roots more than once at the Tea Gardens. They do re-sprout from the roots, but that’s an erratic way to try to create a harvestable plant.
To deal with voles, Christine and her team add a manufactured sterile product called Permatill to their planting holes. In my area, gardeners add this mix to planting holes for spring bulbs like tulips and lilies for the same reason the Tea Gardens staff add it to their planting holes. Voles do not like tunneling through the rock-like bits of Permatill. Permatill also improves soil drainage.
Our Tea Plant Acquisitions
Christine Parks is constantly testing new tea varieties – results of cross-pollination between the plants in her field. Tea plants bloom in the fall. When Wonder Spouse and I were there in October, the field was buzzing with industrious honeybees and other pollinators collecting (and depositing) pollen. The fertilized flowers produce abundant seeds. Christine and her team trial many seeds, because, she told us, you never know when you might get an extraordinary tea plant from such crosses. At the end of the workshop, she gave out handfuls of seeds to class attendees and showed us how to plant them. I am proud to say that all of the seeds she gave me have germinated. I’m not quite sure where I’m going to eventually plant all the seedlings, but I’ll be growing them in pots for at least a year, so I have time to think about it.
Meanwhile, Wonder Spouse and I also purchased three tea plants from the nursery – two different varieties of C. sinensis var. sinensis, and because I like a challenge, one C. sinensis var. assamica. All three are planted inside an empty bed inside my vegetable garden, where the soil is rich and well-drained, water is easily accessible, and a sturdy deer fence protects the plants within from most plant nibblers. I picked varieties that Christine says make excellent green tea – my daily tea of choice. It will be a couple of years before the plants attain harvestable size, and then the key will be to prune them attentively to maintain the bushes for maximum productivity. It’s all explained in her book.
At the tea-planting workshop, Christine provided samples of one of her tea blends. It was the most delicate, wonderfully complex tea I’ve ever enjoyed. When we learned she was offering a bigger tea-tasting open house event a few weeks later, we returned and enjoyed several additional wonderful teas harvested and prepared by Christine and her team. We also met a lovely British couple who were in town visiting their daughter. They saw an advertisement for the open house and could not resist sampling American-made versions of their country’s signature beverage. They were kind enough to allow me to photograph them for this article.
That day, I also wandered among the blooming tea plants buzzing with pollinators. In addition to the pollen collectors, I encountered a healthy Asian Praying Mantis lurking among the bushes, hoping to snag a pollinator snack, and in an area beside the bushes planted with zinnias to attract pollinators, I spotted a late-flying Monarch butterfly – on October 30!
Christine and her team offer workshops on tea-planting several times a year. They also hold open tea-tasting events, and have two scheduled for the last two Saturdays of this month from 3:00-4:00 p.m. In the email she sends to subscribers, this is how she describes these last two events of the year:
- Saturday, December 17: Sunny Day Oolong: a smooth and easy oolong, withered in the Carolina sun
- Saturday, December 24 (Christmas Eve): Summer Garden Green: warm, flavorful, fukamushi style green
Tea samples, plants, and her wonderful book will all be available for sale at these events. And if you buy three tea sample packages, you’ll get a fourth one for free!
Note that Camellia Forest Nursery (where the Tea Gardens are located) will be open on Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 4:00 p.m. If you live near Chapel Hill, NC or plan to be in the area, and you’ve got tea lovers and/or plant lovers on your holiday shopping list, you might want to stop by.
#1 by Donna Deal on December 11, 2022 - 10:23 am
Yummy! I’ve known about them for years, and about the tea growing, but your article has inspired me to go! I also saw Monarchs in October…so wonderful. I never had a problem with deer munching my camelias at my old house. Now that I’m focused on my native plant business, I don’t grow them, but I do love them and look forward to trying the teas.
#2 by piedmontgardener on December 11, 2022 - 10:48 am
Hi, Donna! I don’t think even the ornamental camellias are on the list of deer favorite foods, but some places around here are under so much deer pressure that they will eat anything green, especially if the plants have been fertilized. I’m pretty certain deer can smell supplemental nutrients in leaves. Just another reason to stick to native plants that don’t need any supplemental fertilizers.
Enjoy your visit, and Happy Holidays to you and yours!
#3 by tonytomeo on December 11, 2022 - 2:47 pm
While growing popular ornamental camellias on the farm, we did not grow tea camellias because of the minimal marketability, and also because they are a bit more sensitive to frost. However, I am now aware that they grow at Hakone Gardens in Saratoga, so would like to get some for my own garden. Nuccio’s sent us two stock plants with one of our orders many years ago, so they must be large enough to provide all the cuttings I could want. I do not remember the cultivars, but they were likely among the more common sort. I believe that they succumbed to an unusually cold frost during their first winter, and took a few years to recover.
#4 by piedmontgardener on December 11, 2022 - 3:53 pm
Hi, Tony! It is my understanding that the folks at Camellia Forest Tea Gardens here in NC have been working on more cold-tolerant varieties, so you might want to check in with them as you look for plants for your garden in CA. Good luck with your tea plant quest!
Happy Holidays to you and yours.
#5 by tonytomeo on December 11, 2022 - 4:12 pm
Frost damage is likely rare among established tea camellias here. Ours likely succumbed because they were so small at the time, and the weather was unusually cool. The climate here is quite mild. I suspect that, once established, tea camellias will not mind the locally minor frost, even if some of their foliage is damaged every few years or so.
#6 by Julie Higgie on December 11, 2022 - 4:49 pm
Thank you! Excellent and amazing information. My grandfather grew ornamental camellias. He would have totally loved this information.
#7 by piedmontgardener on December 11, 2022 - 5:11 pm
Hi, Julie! I’m glad you found this information helpful. Happy Holidays to you and your family.
#8 by Cathy Peterson on December 11, 2022 - 10:02 pm
I really enjoyed this article!
#9 by piedmontgardener on December 12, 2022 - 7:06 am
#10 by Craig Nishimoto on December 13, 2022 - 7:22 am
Awesome in-depth reporting here Catherine! I’ll put these tea tastings on my calendar.
#11 by piedmontgardener on December 13, 2022 - 8:16 am
Thanks, Craig! You absolutely should visit, especially since they are literally across the street from you. Happy Holidays to you and yours.
#12 by vonsays on December 16, 2022 - 10:21 am
Hi Catherine. Just writing to thank you for this wonderful post, and all the information on tea growing in our area. You do a fabulous job outlining the subject, and I’ll definitely save this post as a reference. I didn’t know about Camelia Forest Nursery and will definitely check them out.
Your blog is so good Catherine. For most of your posts while reading them I feel like I’m walking around your property seeing things you’re seeing. I mentioned to a friend recently that there seems to be great benefit to depth of understanding of a subject, depending on whether or not someone who has a wealth of knowledge articulates that knowledge into written form for others. You do so beautifully, and thank you for doing it.
Is it ok if I share your blog with my group, and if others sign up?
#13 by piedmontgardener on December 16, 2022 - 12:17 pm
Thank you for these lovely words. I’m glad you find my posts helpful. I am always delighted to gain new subscribers, so please share my blog with anyone you deem likely to be interested.