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When it’s time to put the kettle on, few of us consider the source of those tea leaves unless we’re drinking herbal tea. And that's only because we use the names of the herbs when we buy them.
Herbal teas, such as peppermint or chamomile, are fragrant and earthy. I enjoy them regularly. But, in preparation for my first trip to London, I decided to drink the black tea of my earlier years. The tea bags look the same. [Did you know that many tea bags contain plastic? I didn’t either until recently. Yuck.] The way one makes tea is the same. But black tea is one of those things that somehow feels out of reach and unproducible at home, like paprika. Of course, that feeling led me to learn more about tea plants.
The tea plant family
If you read The Daily Garden regularly, you know that I like to learn about plant families. Much like human families, plant families have traits in common. Knowing about those traits can help in the fight against pests and diseases. It reduces your gardening workload, too. The tea plant family is no exception.
The tea family (Theaceae) is primarily native to China and East Asia, though there are a handful of North American residents. Members of the tea plant family are now grown globally in warm regions. This family of flowering shrubs and trees includes tea and ornamental camellias.
I wouldn’t have thought my bright pink camellias were related to what was in my teacup, but they end up having a lot in common. Both plants have simple, glossy leaves that alternate along the stem and end with what’s called a Theoid leaf tooth. You’ve probably seen these before. When the medial vein expands and becomes slightly opaque and congested at the end of the leaf, with no other veins involved, you have a Theoid leaf tooth.
Tea plants and camellias are both evergreens. They both have showy pink or white flowers. And those flowers are protected at the base with a calyx made with five or more sepals. Both plants can have lots of stems. While you wouldn’t see it without a microscope, both plants produce pseudopollen. Pseudopollen looks like the real thing, and it attracts and provides food for pollinators, but it doesn’t contain any genetic information.
Other members of the tea family have the same characteristics. A couple of North American natives are Georgia’s Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha), which is now extinct in the wild but still cultivated as an ornamental, and Loblolly-bay (Gordonia lasianthus), found throughout southeastern North America are both members of the tea family. But what about that cup of tea?
Tea plant basics
Tea plants (Camellia sinensis) are evergreen shrubs that can grow six feet tall. They have deep taproots and use a lot of water. This makes sense because their native regions get an average of 50” of water a year. Those regions are also a lot warmer than, say, Minnesota. Tea plants can be grown outdoors in Zones 7-12 or indoors year-round. Because tea plants have large taproots, they need large containers.
There are four unique tea plant varieties. Chinese small leaf tea (C. sinensis var. sinensis) and Chinese large leaf tea (C. s. var. assamica) are the most commonly grown tea varieties. There are thousands of cultivars.
Tea plants grow more slowly and produce the best flavor at higher elevations. They prefer moist, nutrient-rich, slightly acidic soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5 and full sun. It may take 4 or 5 years of growth before you start harvesting leaves from your tea plant, but it will grow and produce for another 40-100 years.
Harvesting tea leaves
Harvesting tea leaves can be a labor-intensive process. Young tea plant leaves and terminal buds (flushes) are harvested by hand to make high-quality tea. Lesser teas are harvested by machine. Depending on the local climate, harvesting may occur twice a year or as often as every week or two.
After being picked, leaves are allowed to wilt for a while. Then they are bruised or torn. Among professional tea producers, they are disrupting or macerating the leaves. Damaging the leaves this way allows enzymes to start oxidizing or breaking the leaves down. Next, leaves are rolled between human hands or crushed by machinery. Then the leaves are heated to halt oxidation. This process is called the green kill. The leaves are then dried completely, packaged, and sent to grocery stores, restaurants, and tea shops.
Tea plant problems
Tea plants are susceptible to bacterial diseases, including crown gall and bacterial canker. Nematodes and caterpillars commonly attack tea plants. But the biggest threat to tea plants comes from fungi. Anthracnose, armillaria root rot, black rot, and damping-off are a few fungal diseases that strike tea plants.
Like camellias, tea plants make lovely additions to tea gardens, patios, and sunny rooms, depending on where you live.
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