Growing tea plants
The Latin name for the plant from which tea is made, Camellia sinensis, tells us that it is a member of a genus of flowering plants, Camellia, which has between one and two hundred species.
They are all evergreen shrubs originating in relatively cool and wet parts of eastern and southern Asia and can grow to be small trees. Most of these species are cultivated for their beautiful flowers, that is, they are ornamental plants, and there are about three thousand of these different cultivars.
Just one species, Cameillia sinensis, is of major commercial importance because of the beverage made from its leaves. This genus of plants generally prefer well-drained, acidic soils so are often grown with other plants which like similar growing conditions, such as rhododendrons, azaleas and heathers.
Another product, tea oil, not to be confused with “tea tree oil”, is an edible oil made from pressing the seeds of a number of different members of the Camellia genus, mainly Camellia oleifera, Camellia japonica, and some other species, but only rarely is Camellia sinensis used for this purpose. The much more widely known “tea tree oil”, prized for its antiseptic and antibacterial properties, is not edible and is made from a completely different plant, either the Malealeuca alternifolia, native to Australia or Leptospermum scoparium, native to New Zealand. These are not related to the Camellia genus at all and are not edible.
Cultivating Camellia sinensis commercially
Camellia sinensis var. sinensis and Camellia sinensis var. assamica are the two major varieties grown today, with the former used for most Chinese and Japanese teas as well as Indian Darjeeling, and the latter used for most other Indian teas as well as Pu-erh tea. These plants are mainly grown in tropical and subtropical climates because they need at least 127cm (50 inches) of rainfall each year, that is, relatively wet conditions. However, it can only be grown at altitude in these places because the plants actually prefer much cooler conditions, especially in their first few years.
As already mentioned, these plants prefer an acidic soil and a moist climate. The higher the altitude, and the greater the amount of shade, the slower the plant will grow and the more flavour will develop in the leaves. Tea can be and is now grown outside the traditional regions of South East Asia and this article discusses growing tea here in the UK on a commercial scale, which has only been happening for about fifteen years. It is also being grown on Vancouver Island in Canada, in Washington State in the USA, in Tasmania and Waikato in New Zealand along with many other “non-traditional” countries across the globe.
If left to its own devices, like other Camellias, the tea plant will grow into a small tree if allowed to but commercial plants are usually pruned to waist height to make picking easier. Pinching out the top growth also makes the plant produce more new, tender shoots, which produce a better tasting tea.
Cultivating Camellia sinensis at home?
If you can grow ornamental Camellias in your garden, or you have happy rhododendrons or azaleas, then you should be able to grow your own Camellia sinensis plant. However, when they are small, they are much more vulnerable to heat and sunlight, so are best grown in a pot. This way they can be moved indoors to protect them from frost and moved into the shade to protect them from direct sunlight, especially on a hot summer’s day.
It is really important to choose a variety from a reputable supplier in your own country because then you can be reasonably certain of success: the supplier will have already done the hard work of selecting a cultivar that is likely to thrive in your geographical location. Do not attempt to import plants from traditional tea-growing regions (unless you live in one).
If you try importing a plant, not only is it highly unlikely that it will survive in your part of the world, more importantly, you run the risk of importing pests and diseases. As a result of heightened concerns around food security your plant may well be intercepted at the border and you could then receive a possibly hefty fine from your country’s Plant Health Agency or equivalent. Most countries now have restrictions on the import of plants for planting: here in the UK all such imports are controlled, restricted or even prohibited to some degree. Better safe than sorry when it comes to such things.
Here in the UK there are several growers offering tea plants of different sizes for sale. It is perfectly possible to grow these plants from seed in this country (see Chez Phil’s experience here) but I’m too impatient for that so I ordered a small plant from Gardener’s Dream via Amazon costing £11.99 back in September 2019. When it arrived it was about 20cm (8 inches) tall. It’s spent the winter outdoors and obviously hasn’t grown in that time but it’s still alive and looks healthy.
My entire garden is in full sunlight all day so would not be suitable for it so I will be keeping it in a pot so I can move it indoors later in the year if it becomes very sunny and/or hot. I’m keeping it well watered so that the compost feels wet all the time.
My main source of advice is the excellent UK-based Cassie Liversidge and her book Homegrown Tea. This is a beautiful book full of advice and practical tips for everything from choosing and growing tea plants to plucking and processing the leaves to brew into a drink. She also explains how to grown tea from seeds or cuttings, and there is an illustrated guide to show how to make up fresh and dried teabags.
My little plant is only a baby at the moment so I am resisting the urge to harvest anything from it just yet but watch this space!
Featured image: Mzx Pixel / pixabay