I first started working with tea growers through a University of Hawaii tea research project. In response to my shock that tea could grow in Hawaii, my mentor, University researcher Stuart Nakamoto, told me,”if you see any Camellia bushes or flowers in your neighborhood, you can grow tea” This was my first encounter with the beautiful Camellia, but not my last. On my most recent travels across the US in search for tea I learned about America’s rich Camellia history. I’ve come to learn that the United States has great potential to grow tea on a large scale as there are thousands of neighborhoods that are home to Camellia.
Camellia japonica began growing its popularity in the US around 1800 where it was bred and propagated as an ornamental flower. Today it remains a standard for any green thumb’s garden in the South as thousands of varieties have been introduced to the market. No garden is complete without diversity which is why Camellia enthusiasts have collected as many varieties as they can; including Camellia sinensis. On a recent visit with Christina Parks of Camellia Forest she told us of her experience educating Camellia enthusiasts about growing tea. She said that at all meetings she asks people if they know Camellia sinensis and most respond “Yes!” When asking if anyone has a Camellia sinensis in their garden, most people respond “Yes!”
The Camellia Belt, famous for being the home of the gorgeous Camellia flower, runs through what the USDA calls Hardiness Zones 7-9. This is the ideal climate for the plants that thrive in varying degrees of cold and hot but depend on acidic soil (pH 4.5-5.5) and consistent rainfall. Although tea will grow best in areas that provide these conditions naturally, there are ways to condition soil and collect rainwater to build thriving tea gardens. Farmers in Hawaii are fortunate to have naturally acidic soil because of the soil’s volcanic nature – and healthy rainfall – but in areas with more alkaline soil, farmers have learned to condition their soil by adding organic sources of sulfur or sphagnum peat. Different varieties grow better in different regions so farmers are wise to choose their varieties carefully; asking for advice from growers in their regions or in areas with similar climate.
Nigel Melican, a tea consultant with over 20 years of experience teaching tea-producing countries how to cultivate high quality leaf, has been working with tea growers in the US for years. He insists that with proper TLC, Camellia sinensis can be grown with great success not just in Camellia Belt states, but in all US states. He has given his support to a new campaign to put a Camellia sinensis plant in every US state as a way to bring awareness to US Grown Tea called Tea Across America.
The campaign, started by Jason McDonald (of the newly launched FiLoLi Tea Farms of Brookhaven, Mississippi), and myself, is a passion project to let the world understand that US tea growers mean business and intend to cultivate a high quality tea industry. Nigel provides some introductory tips on how to take care of a Camellia sinensis plant in any US environment. Jason is currently preparing potted plants to send to volunteer hosts. The campaign is still seeking volunteer hosts for a plant in Delaware, North Dakota, and Rhode Island. Sign up to volunteer at this link.