Did you know that you can grow your own tea at home? We’re not talking about tea that you make from herbs, flowers, and other plants. It’s real tea, the real deal “Camellia sinensis”. While the majority of plants in the camellia family are decorative, the “sinensis” genus is where true tea leaves come from.
Choose Your Plant
The two main varieties of tea plants are from the same Camellia genus, but are not to be confused. Camellia sinensis var. sinensis is a Chinese tea plant valued for its green, white, and oolong teas. Its Indian counterpart Camellia sinensis var. assimica is where the black teas come from.
Most home growers choose the Chinese varieties for more than just the purported health benefits. These plants are much easier to grow, are a more manageable size, and are less susceptible to the cold than the Indian varieties. The bush is covered in small, fragrant flowers that are beautiful against the dark, shiny leaves.
In contrast, the assimica plants can grow fifty feet or higher and require a more tropical environment. Their leaves are proportionately larger and thicker as well. But, if you have your heart set on growing your own black tea, don’t let this discourage you. Gardeners in every type of climate do have success with both types of plants at some point.
If you have a garden, a planter, or even just a good-sized pot, give your own tea plant a try. This hardy shrub grows well outside in gardening zones from 8-13 (approximately). Your camellia can also be sheltered in a greenhouse or building with south-facing windows in cooler climates.
The camellia genus of plants isn’t particular about its soil, sun, or shade needs. Like most of the common plants in your garden, they do prefer acidic conditions with several hours of sun. They will still thrive in the shade with poor soil as long as they aren’t competing with other plants for moisture. That said, they don’t have high water needs and are actually resilient during a drought situation. They just don’t like competition for that little bit of water.
Aphids, caterpillars, mites, and scales are common pests that often plague tea bushes. By using natural horticultural oil, you can eliminate these pests without harming the beneficial bugs. Horticultural oil is not harmful to humans or animals either.
Harvesting Your Tea
As with most good things, you must wait for your tea bushes to mature before harvesting them. A minimum of two years’ growth is required before you remove any leaves. It is actually recommended you wait until they are about four years old for any regular harvesting starts. At this time, you should be able to support your tea drinking habit easily.
To harvest the tea you will need to remove the bud and at least the two or three newest leaves from each shoot. Keep in mind that you don’t want to remove all of the shoots as you do need to allow for future growth.
Processing the Tea
Just as with grapes, how you process the tea once you’ve harvested it will determine what it turns into. The sinensis variety will provide green, oolong, and white tea while the assimica is where black tea comes from.
- Black Tea – Black tea takes the longest to process, due in part to the larger, thicker leaves of the assimica plant/tree. Wilt the leaves and buds for about 12-16 hours or more, by leaving them on a tray in the shade or indoors. Using a cloth to roll the leaves and break them down is the most efficient method of bruising these leaves. This rolling and kneading process should continue until the juices are oozing from the wilted leaves. Once sufficiently bruised, allow the leaves to oxidize in a warm, dry place for another 12 hours. When the leaves have turned a reddish-brown color, you are ready to proceed directly to the drying stage below.
- Green Tea – For green tea, wilt your buds and leaves either in the shade or indoors for approximately 6-8 hours. Once wilted, heat them in a dry frying pan for about 4 minutes to prevent further oxidation and to stop the enzymes from breaking them down further. When cooled, roll the leaves in your hands or a clean cloth in order to break them up and bruise further.
- Oolong Tea – Wilt the leaves and buds as above, shaking them regularly. Once wilted, bruise them either by hand or by rolling in a clean cloth and then spread on a tray. Leave them on the tray for at least 30 minutes so they can darken before heating in a pan as above.
- White Tea – White tea is the easiest and least processed of the four types. Once harvested the leaves and buds can be spread onto a tray and left alone in a shaded area out of the sun for a few days. When completely dry and wilted, follow the final step below.
Drying and Storage
The final step for processing each of the above tea types is the same. Place the leaves and buds on a baking sheet and dry in an oven at 250 degrees Fahrenheit for about 25 minutes. The leaves must be completely dry for storage to ensure freshness and keep mold from forming.
Store your finished tea in an airtight, opaque container that also keeps light and moisture out. Keep the container in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight.
Now enjoy your tea!
So what is your favorite tea? Have you ever tried growing your own?