all about growing tea plants

All about growing tea plants

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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

tea plantation india
Image by engin akyurt from Pixabay

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 Plants4presents. They offer a choice between a small plant from £22 or a large tea plant for £35. I went with the small one: it was about 30cm (12 inches) tall when it arrived and it’s currently a pot plant in a room indoors.

My entire garden is in full sunlight all day so would not be suitable for it at the moment. Keeping it indoors means I can ensure that it gets plenty of light but, crucially, stays relatively cool all year round and never gets direct sunlight. 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
 

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10 thoughts on “All about growing tea plants”

  1. Love this! Didn’t know I could grow my own tea plant. It had never occurred to me to look for one. How long does it take to grow one to the size where you can harvest tea to drink from it?

    Reply
    • It is a fairly slow-growing shrub so, depending on the growing conditions, it would take at least two or three years to get the plant to the stage where you could start harvesting its leaves for tea.

      Reply
  2. Hi Lisa

    That’s a nice post about tea and tea plants.

    We have C. sinensis plantations in so many parts of our country being grown for commercial use. In fact, tea is among the top forex earner for our country and helps us compete favorably with international markets by strengthening our local currency. It is therefore very important to us.

    I agree with you on the climate point since I see tea plantations in our country normally found on tropical highlands where the climate is cold and wet. The young trees like wet weather so much.

    What I didn’t know is that one can grow various species of tea plants for beatification. I find this very interesting. May be you could show us a few images of how this is done? Thanks. 

    Boniface- AndroidBix 

    Reply
    • In the UK, tea plants have been grown as ornamental plants in gardens for about 400 years – they are an attractive evergreen shrub with white flowers – for some reason no-one thought of trying to grow them commercially until very recently. In another post on my site, here, I give a link to the Tregothan Estate in Cornwall in southern England which has lots of pictures of its ornamental tea plants. Thanks very much for your comment, it’s given me some valuable insights.

      Reply
  3. Love the article! I didn’t know you can grow you own tea plants, I often just buy the pre made leaves already dried and prepared nicely. I live in the tropics though so I wonder if the tea plant will survive in a tropical climate where the temperature is consistently hot and there is high humidity? 

    Reply
    • I’m not entirely sure but some varieties, the Assam type for example, are grown commercially in more tropical regions, such as southern India and Kenya, so it’s definitely possible. The varieties sold in the UK have been identified over the course of many years as being most suitable for our latitude and climate. My advice would be to look for tea plants from a supplier in your own country, or one at roughly your latitude at least.

      Reply
  4. I am an avid drinker of tea, from green tea, black tea and red tea. I also use it for detoxification. I might try growing Camella Sinensis in our backyard. I browsed the Home grown tea link you have provided above, it´s quite interesting and the price is affordable. I would definitely check on that. Thank you for sharing this article.

    Reply
    • Yes, I think it’s very affordable – about the same as you’d pay for any small ornamental shrub. The difficulty is leaving it alone and letting it grow rather than harvesting the leaves! I’m hoping that once it gets a bit older I’ll be able to take cuttings from it and have several plants, although it’ll be some years before they’re big enough to harvest.

      Reply
  5. I never had the idea to have a tea plant at home, thanks for the idea. You said that when they are small that is when they don’t do well with heat, does it means that the stronger they are, they can stay under the sun? Is there a preferable temperature to keep them safe?

     I like to use tea in my beauty potion, it is very good for my hair and skin. So, having it at home will be very good. 

    Thanks

    Reply
    • Yes, when they are small they are much more vulnerable to conditions they don’t like, such as direct sun or too much heat. I think as they mature and the root stock gets bigger they become much more tolerant of different conditions. I don’t have a place in my garden that has partial shade – it’s all in full south-facing sun – that’s why I’m growing it indoors for now but hopefully when it gets a bit older I’ll be able to plant it outside. 

      Reply

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