Garden Gossip with Ted Smith

“Tea … is a religion of the art of life.”

– Okakura Kakuz, The Book of Tea

“There is something in the nature of tea that leads us into a world of quiet contemplation of life.”

– Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living

“Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea! How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea.”

– Sydney Smith, A memoir of the Rev. Sydney Smith

“If you are cold, tea will warm you;

if you are too heated, it will cool you;

If you are depressed, it will cheer you;

If you are excited, it will calm you.”

– William Ewart Gladstone

Tea has captured the hearts and palettes of mankind since it was first discovered a few thousand years ago in Southwest China. Originally, the leaves of Camellia sinensis were brewed as a medicinal drink but it didn’t take long for tea to establish itself as a stimulant and as the social drink of choice for people of status around the world. Over the past few Garden Gossip columns we’ve been delving into the broad world of herbal teas. Today I thought it would be nice to change things up a bit and look at the plant that started it all. The real tea plant.

Camellia sinensis (tea plant) is the shrubby plant from which all true teas derive. It is distinctly different from Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) and Leptospermum scoparium (Australian tea tree) which are the sources of tea tree essential oils but not the brewable leaves. There are two primary and fairly distinct tea plants, one for Chinese teas and one for Indian Assam teas. Both can be sources of black tea, green tea, white tea, oolong tea, yellow tea, kukicha tea and pu-erh tea. These different teas are simply harvested at different stages of maturity and/or processed in a slightly different manner. While most teas are derived from the leaves of the tea plant, some are also brewed from the buds and the twigs. The Chinese word for the Camellia shrub literally means “tea flower” while the sinensis portion of the Latin name means “from China.” While Camellia sinensis is native to Asia and India, it has quickly expanded its range and is now grown worldwide in any areas that are temperate enough to meet its needs. The tea plant prefers tropical or subtropical growing conditions and does not enjoy frosts or cold weather (although some newer tea cultivars have been bred to be quite cold tolerant). Despite this preference for heat, some clonal varieties are grown as far north as Zone 7 and some tea groves can be found growing high in cool mountainous conditions. It is reported that teas slowly maturing in cooler conditions develop a much more flavourful leaf. In our area the tea plant makes a great greenhouse plant and then mopes indoors through the long winter. It is quick to perk back up the following summer once it finds itself back in its preferred warm humid conditions.

If you are really fortunate, you may find a tea plant for sale at a nursery. I had to start mine from seed which was a bit of an adventure. Tea seeds are very hard to find and even once you track some down they often aren’t viable. I found a supplier who offered 25 seeds at a reasonable price. What he shipped was well over one hundred seeds with the explanation that germination was “spotty.” I soaked the seeds in hot water for a couple of days. The literature suggests that the good seeds sink and he dead seeds float. I planted a tray of each just to compare and had only one seed from the “sinkers” and one seed from the “floaters” germinate. From what I’ve read this poor germination is not unusual. All I really needed was one plant which can be cloned once it’s larger so the poor germination really wasn’t a problem. One hundred tea plants may have been. Tea plants should be grown in slightly acidic free draining soil. Regular watering and misting is critical to their happiness. Two to three years in you may be able to harvest your first leaves. By then the plants could be between one and two meters in height unless you keep them well pruned.

They say that tea is the second most widely consumed beverage in the world, topped only by water. Sounds like the perfect bandwagon to jump on. A little garden challenge is always fun as well.