If you can grow Camellia sinensis, you can harvest your own tea.
Filed under: Foliage Plants, Shrubs, Cultivating, Garden Zones, Fall, Plants, Garden Zone 6, Garden Zone 7
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by Marie Hofer, Gardening editor, HGTV.com
If you can provide moist, well-drained, slightly acidic soil and a warm climate (Zone 6b to 9), you may be able to grow Camellia sinensis, the broad-leaved evergreen that's the source of black and green tea. A relative of the more extravagantly flowered camellia that graces lucky landscapes (C. japonica), this shrub grows four to eight feet tall and wide and produces small, single white flowers in the fall, usually partly hidden by the foliage but loved by bees.
Culture-wise, this plant needs the same type of conditions as do azaleas and rhododendrons, but it has a reputation in some parts of the country for fussiness. Finely rooted, it needs plenty of moisture but will object to any drainage problems. Although it's grown commercially in full sun, many experts recommend giving it open, high shade—not the shade of deciduous trees with competitive root systems, but under tall pines.
Still, it's not as tender as its more flowery cousins. "In [the freeze of 1985] we lost 90 percent of our Camellia japonica, but C. sinensis had very little cold damage," says Kai Mei, co-owner of the Camellia Forest Nursery in Chapel Hill, N.C. Two strains of C. sinensis var. sinensis—one Korean, the other Chinese—seem to be best adapted to moist, temperate climates. Hardy to Zone 6b, those varieties have been reported doing well in New Jersey and warmer parts of Pennsylvania. Other varieties, namely a large-leathery-leaf form of C. sinensis and the pink-flowered 'Rosea' (both hardy to 7a), and C. sinensis var. ptilophylla and a variety from Guangzhou (both hardy to 7b) can better withstand drier climates.
Although Camellia sinensis is supposed to be able to do well in Zone 9, temperatures may sometimes get too warm. "In its native countries, it usually grows in highlands or in foothills, not in moist, tropical areas," says Stephen Garton, extension specialist in nursery and landscape horticulture in Knoxville, Tennessee. "The best growth occurs when the temperatures stay in the mid 60's at night [during the growing season], but our night temperatures stay high, especially in Zone 9. [Under those conditions,] the plant is under stress so it's more susceptible to other stress factors."
If growing a tea plant works out for you, keep in mind that brewing a cup of green tea isn't as quick and easy as an herbal tea. There are several recipes for making green tea, and they usually involve some combination of heating, rolling and further heating. It might be easier to simply buy your green tea, but then you couldn't tell your friends you grew it yourself!
Photos by Michael A. Dirr
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