Herb To Know: Tea

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Tea forms an attractive, evergreen shurb in warm climates. Mulch helps retain moisture.
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For green and white tea, harvest only the tender new growth at the tip of leaves.

Genus:Camellia sinesis

• Hardy to Zone 8

We cherish tea for its timeless flavor, health benefits and social pleasures, yet rarely think of it outside of its box, bag or strainer. In truth, tea (Camellia sinensis) is a valuable plant and can be a prized garden element.

The most useful of the Camellias, the tea plant makes a pleasant, evergreen accent for gardens in the southern United States. In cooler climates, tea can be grown in a pot and moved indoors for winter.

A shrub or small tree native to the highlands of Asia, C. sinensis thrives in tropical and sub-tropical areas, growing 3 to 12 feet tall and as much as 12 feet across. Glossy, dark green, elliptical leaves cover the plant year-round. In late summer to fall, 1-inch creamy white flowers appear, each with a cluster of yellow stamens. Like other camellias, the blooms are delightfully scented.

Modern research is confirming what Asian herbalists have believed for thousands of years: Drinking tea has many health benefits. Recent studies suggest drinking tea can help prevent tooth decay, cancer and heart disease; and can help heal cuts, burns, bruises, insect bites, sunburn and swelling. For more, see “Leaves of Fortune in Your Tea Cup” on Page 46.

Tea in the Garden 

Tea plants thrive in rich, moist (but well-drained), acidic soil of 5 to 7 pH–similar to their native woodland soil. Add compost to garden soil before planting to boost organic matter and improve drainage. In very hot climates, choose a site that receives partial shade in the afternoon. Mulch with a 2- to 3-inch layer of bark to help retain moisture; water regularly the first year.

To encourage bushy growth, snip off branch ends just above a strong bud in mid- to late spring.

If you grow tea in a container, as you must in Zones 7 and colder, be sure the potting mix does not hold water. Add compost and sand to the mix to improve drainage and retain nutrients. Keep the soil moist, but not overly wet.

For green tea, harvest only the tender leaves from the tips of branches. In China, the leaves are dried by stir-frying in a hot pan.

All the Tea in America

Cultivated in India and Asia for thousands of years, tea has been grown commercially in the United States since the 19th century. Today, the Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina, is this country’s only tea farm. Owned by R.C. Bigelow, Inc., the 127-acre plantation grows thousands of tea bushes, descendents of plants brought from China and India in the 19th century. For more information about the Charleston Tea Plantation, visit www.BigelowTea.com/act/.

Sources For Tea Plants

• Camellia Shop, (877) 666-1169, www.CamelliaShop.com
• Forestfarm Nursery, (541) 846-7269, www.ForestFarm.com
• Well-Sweep Herb Farm, (908) 852-5390; www.WellSweep.com

Dawna Edwards is a writer, tea fanatic and mother of two apprenticing gardeners.

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