How to grow tea: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis

Camellia sinensis var. sinensisCommon Name: Small leaf tea camellia

Botanical Name: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis

Color: Dark green leaf; 1- 2 inch white blooms with yellow stamens

Type: Evergreen strub

Size: Up to 6 feet tall by 4 feet wide

Soil: Acidic, pH 5 – 6

Exposure: Full sun to part shade

Watering: Average

Zones: 6b – 9

During the Tang Dynasty (609-907), Buddhist monks traveling south along the Yangtse river would gather leaves from the wild shrubs growing near the waterway. The monks would use these leaves for tea as they traveled and they also brought gathered leaves to their fellow friars, introducing tea far and wide.

For thousands of years, tea was used for medicinal purposes in China. Tea lore shares that in 2737 BC, Emperor Shen Nung boiled his water before drinking it. When he was waiting for it to cool, nearby Camellia sinensis leaves blew into his bowl, changing the color of the water. Curious, the emperor took a sip of the colored water and was pleasantly surprised by its flavor and restorative properties.

Native to China, and throughout Asia, including Japan and South Korea, Camellia sinensis var. sinensis is the plant from which we get tea. In Chinese, the name for camellia is Chá hua meaning tea flower. The history of tea is complex, and one that spreads across multiple cultures over a span of thousands of years.

Beyond the leaves, Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, is a nice shrub for the home landscape. The flowers of C. sinensis are typically white with variants to include pink flowers, ‘Rosea’, twisted stems, ‘Contorta’, and variegated leaves, ‘Variegata’. The blooms grow at the tips of twigs and leaf axils and will bloom from autumn to early winter.  Although the flowers aren’t as large or colorful as many of the other camellias, particularly the japonicas, the novelty and use of growing this edible is worth considering.

Many factors affect the taste of tea leaves besides different varieties or cultivars of C. sinensis,) such as climate, the time of year the leaves are harvested, even the side of the mountain or the elevation at which it is grown. You can imagine, there are many different tastes from village to village, and while an experienced tea taster can detect this difference, the average home garden will not likely notice. And once you begin to grow your on tea at home, the only factor affecting the taste of your tea from brew to brew is the timing of your harvest or the amout of processing you perfer.

The various tea types–green, oolong, and black–are from the same camellia plant C. sinensis, but the difference in taste is the result of the way the leaves are processed through oxidation. The process, (or the lack of it as in the case of making green tea) is what make the teas different. Oxidation of tea leaves produces the subtle chemical changes responsible for the distinctive taste and color characteristics of different types of tea.

Tea camellia harvestThe Harvest

Harvest tea by hand picking the leaves from Camellia sinensis. In general, green tea is made from smaller, younger leaves and leaf buds while oolong or black tea is made from larger, older leaves. But this isn’t always the case. Regardless, pick the tips with 2-3 leaves  and a bud at the growing stem. Leaves will grow back and can again be harvested in a week or two, particularly during the spring growing season.

Photo Credit: Christine Parks

Tea Processing

The categories of tea are distinguished by the amount of processing they receive. Green tea is not oxidized at all. Oolong and black tea leaves are oxidized in varying degrees; the longer the leaves are oxidized, the closer to black the tea becomes.

Green Tea

Green tea is not oxidized. To prevent oxidation from occurring, heat the freshly harvested leaves by steaming or stir-frying in a dry pan, for one or two minutes. The heat kills the enzymes that cause oxidation. The pan only needs to be on medium heat, warmed, yet cool enough to handle with your hands.

Rolling of the tea is traditional done by gently turning the tea leaves around in your cupped hands. This rolling process allows flavors to infuse better when the tea is seeped in hot water than with unshaped leaves.

After the tea leaves have been rolled, spread the leaves on a baking sheet and dry in the oven with a temperature set at 200-250 degrees F. Keeping this temperate low helps preserve as much of the aroma as possible while at the same time, drying out the leaves. Heat for about 20 minutes. This step is necessary to remove all the water in the leaves. Mix the leaves and let sit in the cooling oven for a few minutes more.  Feel for moisture, and if needed, heat again until all the leaves have uniformly dried.

Oolong Tea

Oolong tea is partially oxidized. After harvesting, begin processing by spreading out the tea leaves on a dish or tray allowing them to wither and become brown. This could take anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours. The longer you allow the oxidation to occur, the closer the leaves come to black tea. Oxidation takes place best in an environment that is somewhat warm and not too dry.

After the leaves have oxidized, take several leaves at a time, and begin to gently roll between your hands.  The leaves will darken and become crinkled but should not be broken into pieces.

After the tea leaves have been rolled, spread the leaves on a baking sheet and dry in the oven with a temperature set at 200-250 degrees F. Heat for about 20 minutes. Mix the leaves and let sit in the cooling oven for a few minutes more. Feel for moisture, and if need be, heat again until all the leaves have uniformly dried. This step is necessary to remove all the water in the leaves and to stop the oxidation process.

Black Tea

Black tea is fully oxidized, the process for making black tea is the same as making Oolong tea, except the leaves are left out to wither longer allowing the leaves to fully oxidize.

After harvesting, begin processing by spreading out the tea leaves on a dish or tray, allowing them to wither and become completely brown. This should take several hours or even overnight.

After the leaves have oxidized, take several leaves at a time, and begin to gently roll between your hands.  The leaves will darken and become crinkled but should not be broken into pieces.

After the tea leaves have been rolled, spread the leaves on a baking sheet and dry in the oven with a temperature set at 200-250 degrees F. Heat for about 20 minutes. Mix the leaves and let sit in the cooling oven for a few minutes more. Feel for moisture, and if need be, heat again until all the leaves have uniformly dried out. This step is necessary to remove all the water in the leaves and to stop the oxidation process.

Dried tea for each of the teas can be stored in an airtight container away from the light. To get the best taste from your fresh teas, use within three to six months.

 

Camellia sinensis var. sinensis

Now showing in North Carolina nurseries; camellia tea is a great plant for NC gardening and landscaping.

Resource: Camellia Forest in Chapel Hill

Words by:  Helen Yoest

Sponsored by the North Carolina Nursery and Landscape Association

 

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