I’m obsessed with the idea of growing my own caffeine! I’m addicted, there are no two ways about it. And I really love my coffee and tea. But it’s not grown locally, to be sure. I ordered seeds last year, but we moved right after I planted them. And they never came up. So this weekend, I bought a seedling to plant with my mother’s ornamentals. As a camellia, it should fit right in!
I thought I’d share some of the research I did last year about growing tea….
Types of Tea
Green Tea, Black Tea, Oolong Tea and White Tea all come from the same plant. Surprise! They all come from the leaves of Camellia sinensis. There are two different varieties of the plant: Sinensis sinensis and sinensis assamica. The former has smaller leaves and thrives in cool, high mountains (eg, central China and Japan); the latter is a much taller plant and thrives in the lower elevations of moist, tropical regions (eg, Northeast India, and the Szechuan and Yunnan provinces of China). There are also hybrids of the two varieties.
Where Does It Grow?
Camellia sinensis is indigenous to China, Tibet, and northern India. The major tea growing regions today include India, China, Sri Lanka, Japan, Taiwan, Kenya, Turkey, Argentina, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe…. and more.
That said, you can grow it outdoors in Zone 8 or above. Or if you’re colder than that, you can grow it in a greenhouse or a pot that you bring indoors in the winter. They’re a camellia, so if you grow camellias, chances are you can grow tea!
What Does It Look Like?
The fragrant flowers are white with yellow stamens inside (above). The leaves are shiny and dark green, with new growth being much lighter. The fruits are small and hard, looking similar to a hazelnut (below). The seeds are about 1/4” in diameter. The sinensis variety can reach a maximum height of 10 feet or so; the assamica variety (think Assam tea) are much larger: up to 65 feet tall. So, for a garden plant, you’re probably going to want to go for the sinensis.
How Do You Grow It?
You can propagate tea from cuttings or from seeds. According to the flier I received with my seeds from Whatcom Seed Company: “Sow seeds 3/4” deep in standard soil mix with coarse sand added. Keep damp. Ideal night temperature of 55F, day 68F. High humidity and filtered sun. Fertilize often. Ideal pH 5-6.”
Plants should be placed approximately 3 feet apart in a sunny to semi-shaded area. Plant them so that a house, wall, tree, or something else will protect them from strong wind. They should be pruned back every four years to rejuvenate the bush and keep it at a convenient height.
Tea plants have a growth phase and a dormant phase. The dormant phase is in the winter, so as soon as shoots (“flush”) emerge in the spring, the new growth is plucked for tea. In hotter climates, there may be several flushes per year. The two uppermost leaves and the new buds are picked during each flush.
Here’s the tricky part for the home gardener: propagating a tea plant from seed is like propagating asparagus, rhubarb, or a number of other perennials from seed. It takes time. If you grow a tea plant from seed, it can take three years before your plant is ready to harvest. So until then, think of it as an investment, and experiment, or just a nice plant. If that sounds like too long for you, you can buy a plant or propagate from a cutting.
Given the right conditions, a tea plant can grow and produce for 50-100 years. Wild tea plants have been found to be as old as 1,700 years.