Grow and Make your own Tea!

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Iced tea is as Southern as pecan pie, as Pepsi Cola, as magnolias or camellias. In fact, tea is made from the leaves of camellias- not our big fancy ornamental ones but the tea camellia. And you can grow it right in your own yard.

There are two recognized types of tea, Chinese and Indian.  Chinese tea, Camellia sinensis var. sinensis has been in cultivation for thousands of years. It probably originated in western Yunnan in China. Wild tea plants are found in forests throughout Asia, but may be escaped cultivated plants. Green, Oolong and Black tea are all made from the same tea leaves, using different curing processes. Another sub species, Camellia sinensis var. assamica is the source of Indian tea. It grows in the more tropical areas of India and Asia. Unfortunately it is not cold hardy here.

Tea camellias are no harder to grow than ornamental camellias. They like acid, well drained soil and shade from the heat of the day. While they can become a large shrub or small tree topping 10 feet or more, they are usually kept heavily pruned in order to encourage fresh new growth, which makes the best tea. Constantly pruned camellias can be harvested as often as every 15 days. One tea plant will keep a heavy tea consumer supplied with tea leaves. They can double as a great hedge plant even if you never make a cup of tea from them. The flowers are small but extremely profuse and quite ornamental even before they open, looking like little dark berries on the stems. Mostly they are white, but there is a pink flowering variety. They bloom in October and November here in the Triangle.

Making your own tea is really no more time consuming or difficult than making your own jams and pickles or canning your own fruits and vegetables. I personally enjoy the process and the connection with history as much as the final product. There are endless variations for the preparation of tea leaves but the instructions that follow are pretty straight forward and easy.

Brewing instructions are also all over the map. The general consensus is to put a heaping teaspoon of tea leaves into a pot and pour simmering but not boiling water over them. Steep the leaves until it tastes good and strain into a cup. Drink. Happily, at least for my frugal nature, the same leaves can be used up to 5 times, with the second and third cup being considered the most flavorful.


Green Tea

  • Pluck the very youngest leaves and leaf buds.
  • Blot the leaves dry, and let dry in the shade for a few hours.
  • Steam the leaves (like you would vegetables) on your stove for about a minute. This stops the oxidation process in the leaves.
  • For a different flavor, try roasting them in a skillet for 2 minutes instead of steaming.
  • Spread the leaves on a baking sheet and dry in the oven at 250F for 20 minutes.
  • Store the dried tea leaves in an air-tight container

Oolong Tea

  • Pluck the very youngest leaves and leaf buds.
  • Spread them out on a towel under the sun and let them wilt for about 45 minutes.
  • Bring your leaves inside and let them sit at room temperature for a few hours.
  • Make sure to stir the leaves up every hour.
  • The edges of the leaves will start to turn red as they begin to dry.
  • Spread the leaves on a baking sheet and dry in the oven at 250F for 20 minutes.
  • Store the dried tea leaves in an air-tight container.

Black Tea

  • Pluck the very youngest leaves and leaf buds.
  • Roll the leaves between your hands, and crush them until the leaves start to darken and turn red.
  • Spread them out on a tray, and leave them in a cool location for 2-3 days.
  • Dry them in the oven at 250F for about 20 minutes.
  • Store in an air-tight container.

Camellia Flower Tea

  • Pluck the fully opened flowers.
  • Spread them out on a tray, and dry them in the sun, in a dehydrator or in the oven until fully dry.
  • Store in an air-tight container