Thursday, 28 August 2014 00:00

Tea: How does tea grow?

Did you know that tea leaves grow on trees?


The tea tree species, Camellia sinensis, is used to make virtually all types of common teas (except herbal). Exceptions are:

     Chinese tea which comes from subspecies Camellia sinensis var. sinensis.

     Assam (Indian) tea, which is made from the subspecies Camellia sinensis var. assamica.

  • Latin Name:

    Camellia sinensis

  • Growth:

    USDA Hardiness Zones 7 - 9

    Click here for USDA Hardiness Zone map.

    Camellia sinensis grows approximately 6 to 60 feet tall, with dark green, glossy edible leaves. It produces fragrant white or pink flowers that bear small, hard seeds approximately ¼ inches in diameter. Its leaves range from glossy and smooth to fuzzy and white-haired.

    Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, typically grows more successfully in North America than its relative, Camelia sinensis var. assamica, which is found in the tropical regions of southeast Asia.

    Camellia sinensis var. sinensis grows best in cool, mountainous areas. Most tea is grown in India and China, but also thrives outdoors in moderate zones of the United States. In regions that experience severe freezes, the plant is kept in containers and moved indoors when the temperature drops.

    Camellia sinensis var. sinensis enjoys direct sunlight but also does well in light shade. It prefers organic soil that is slightly acidic, and does not require a great deal of water.

    Pruning is the most important aspect of tea tree care, as it keeps the plants productive and prevents them from growing too tall for hand picking. The tea tree is highly drought-resistant, and if properly cared for, can produce tea anywhere from 50 to 100 years.


  • Propagation:

    Camellia sinensis is grown from seed or propagated from cuttings taken from an existing plant.

    When started from seed, it takes at least three years for the tea tree to begin producing enough leaves to harvest. Seeds are soaked for 24 hours to soften the outer hull, and any seeds that have floated to the surface are discarded, as they are likely hollow or rotten. The soaked seeds are placed in a sunny area for a day or two, and misted occasionally to help retain moisture. Select seeds that have developed a crack in the hull are sown immediately.

    To propagate Camellia sinensis from a cutting, a healthy limb is cut from the tree, approximately two inches below a swollen bud. Within a year, the cutting will grow roots and is transplanted once it has a fully formed root system. It will be another 12 to 15 months before the tree is big enough to harvest for the first time.

  • Harvest:

    Tea plants are dormant in winter. When new shoots emerge in spring, they are called the flush. The warmer the climate, the more flushes are harvested each year. Only new growth is picked, choosing the smallest leaves and buds to make tea.

    The flavor of tea depends on where the plant is grown, and when and how it is harvested, dried and fermented. Tea varieties made from Camellia sinensis include white, green, oolong, black and pu’erh teas.


    Once the tea leaves have been picked and bagged, they are shipped to a processor. There they undergo a multi-step process:

    1. Withering: The leaves are spread out either in the sun or on drying racks and left to wither, losing some of their moisture.

    2. Rolling or Chopping: Traditionally, the leaves are rolled so that even more moisture is released, and the leaves remain whole and unbroken. Otherwise, they are chopped into a more dust-like substance.

    3. Oxidation: The leaves are spread out again in a cool, damp space and oxidation continues. As oxygen reacts with the cell tissues of the leaf, it turns from green to a reddish brown color.

    4. Drying: Leaves are dried with hot air, and the color darkens further to a deep brown or black.

    5. Sorting: The leaves are sorted by size and grade before shipping.

  • History:

    The Camellia sinensis plant originated in southeast Asia, at the geographic point of confluence between southwest China and Tibet, north Burma, and northeast India. Much like its diverse variety and flavor spectrum, tea has a long and complex history, scattered across multiple cultures and thousands of years.

    Tea is thought to have originated as a medicinal beverage in China during the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BCE). Popular Chinese legend attributes the “invention” of tea to Shennong, the legendary emperor of China and cultural hero known as the “Emperor of Five Grains.” According to legend, Shennong would test various herbs, some of which were poisonous, by consuming them himself, and he chewed tea leaves or brewed them in boiling water to counteract the poison.

    China has the earliest records of tea consumption, dating back as far as the 10th century BCE. Medical texts from the third century BCE describe tea as a medicinal drink for mental clarity and stimulation. Classical Chinese philosopher, Laozi, touted green teas as the elixir of life.

    During the Tang dynasty (618-907 BCE), writer Lu Yu wrote Cha Jing (The Classic of Tea), the first known monograph written on tea. Cha Jing describes how tea is grown, processed and prepared as a beverage, as well as how it is evaluated for quality. During this time, tea bricks were used as a valid form of currency.

    Tea was introduced to Japan in the late 6th century BCE by Buddhist monks.  At first, it was the drink of the religious classes in Japan, and later spread to the ruling classes. Green tea eventually became a staple among Japan’s cultured upper class, and Japanese tea ceremonies (derived in the 15th century from Chinese tradition) are renowned around the world to this day.

    Tea was first introduced to the western world during the 16th century through trade between Chinese and Portuguese merchants. Imports to Britain began in the 1660's, with the marriage of King Charles II to Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza, who brought tea to the royal court.

    The British developed the East India Tea Company, which grew into one of the largest tea trade monopolies during the Age of Enlightenment. The popularity of cane sugar coincided with the introduction of tea in Britain, and sweet tea became a national staple.

    In North America, tea would play a pivotal role in the American revolution in the late 18th century, when the British crown placed an excessive tax on the transport and sale of tea, resulting in the Boston Tea Party of 1773.

    Although tea grows naturally in India, it was not cultivated commercially until the arrival of colonists from the British East India Tea Company in the 1830's. During the 19th and 20th centuries, India became the top tea producer in the world, but was displaced by China in the 21st century.

  • Top Producers:

    China currently leads the world in tea production, followed by India, Kenya, Sri Lanka, and Turkey (FAOSTAT, 2011).

  • Varieties:

    Remarkably, all types of tea, except assam and herbal, come from the same tree: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis. The difference is in the processing. All are collected and cleaned in the same manner. The darker the tea, the greater the caffeine content. There are 6 basic categories of tea:

    1. White tea

    This is the rarest of teas: It’s grown predominantly in Fiji and China. The name comes from the fact that the tea is almost colorless. It has a subtle, slightly sweet, creamy or nutty flavor.
    White tea is made from buds picked only two days of the year when they have not yet fully opened. They are withered - then steamed or cooked to stop the oxidation process from setting in. Then they are cooled, rolled, dried and sorted the same as other teas.

    2. Green tea

    Green tea comprises approximately 10% of world consumption.
    Green tea is greenish yellow in color with a grassy or leafy taste.
    After picking, green tea leaves are also withered, but then, like white tea, are steamed before cooling, rolling, drying and sorting.

    3. Oolong tea

    “The champagne of teas” is considered the finest, most expensive tea in the world.
    Oolong tea is “semi-oxidized.” It goes through a short period of oxidation - or fermentation - that turns the leaves from green to brown. The beverage itself is a pale yellow brown with a delicate fruity, floral taste.

    4. Black tea

    This is the most common type of tea worldwide. With a broad range of flavors, it is heartier and more assertive than green or oolong teas. The leaves are withered and rolled and then fully oxidized for several hours before the drying and sorting processes occur. This results in the dark coloring and triples the caffeine content.

    5. Pu-erh tea

    Pu-erh tea could be classified as a black tea as it is processed in the same way but it is oxidized not once, but twice. It is then followed by a period of maturation until it develops a layer of mold. This mold imparts a distinctive earthy flavor to it that is too strong for most consumers. It is often used as a medicinal tea.

    6. Flavored tea and Blends

    Tea quite readily absorbs other aromas and tastes. 

    Enhanced teas are a mixture of any one of the 6 basic teas and other flavors like flowers (rose, magnolia, jasmine) or fruits (orange, apple), herbs and spices.
    Blends are teas that are mixtures of any of the 6 classic teas listed above. Common blends include: Earl Grey, Darjeeling, English Breakfast, Irish Breakfast and Caravan.

    Assam tea is harvested from the Camellia sinensis var. assamica tree, and processed in the same way as the leaves of var. sinensis teas.

    Herbal and Tisanes

    “Tea” is loosely defined as any beverage made with the leaves of a plant. Technically, true tea is made from Camellia sinensis. Herbal teas are referred to as tisanes or herbal infusions. They are made by steeping various flowers, herbs, spices, etc. in boiling water. These teas are often associated with mental and physical health benefits, and are consumed for their medicinal, rejuvenating or soothing qualities. Common herbal teas include: Chamomile, rose hip, peppermint and lemon verbena. Rooibos and mate are also types of herbal teas.

  • Top Health Benefits:

    True tea, derived from the plant, Camellia sinensis, provides a variety of health benefits. Although most studies focus on better-known green and black teas, whites and oolongs also possess the health benefits related to the polyphenols and phytochemicals found in the Camellia sinensis plant.

    Other “teas” (including rooibos, mate, and herbal blends) may possess their own share of health and wellness benefits, however, this section focuses on the benefits specifically related to true Camellia sinensis teas, which include green, white, oolong and black varieties.

    Green tea is one of the least processed varieties of tea (white is the least), and therefore contains the most antioxidants and polyphenols. White tea and oolong tea are also praised for their antioxidants, as well as their bone and teeth-strengthening components and their anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial benefits.

    Green tea is the best known food source of the powerful antioxidant, catechin, which is more powerful than vitamins C and E in halting oxidative damage to cells. Studies have associated consumption of green tea with a reduced risk for several cancers including breast, bladder, colon, esophageal, lung, ovarian, pancreatic, prostate, stomach and skin.

    The catechins in green tea also increase the body’s ability to burn fat as fuel, accounting for improved muscle endurance and weight loss.

    Regular green, white and oolong tea consumption also lowers the risk of metabolic syndrome, which increases the risk of conditions such as type II diabetes, stroke and arterial diseases.

    A study produced by the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2006 links consumption of green tea to lowered mortality rates due to cardiovascular disease. Participants who consumed five cups of green tea daily ran a lower risk of heart disease, and those who drank 10 cups of green tea daily lowered their LDL cholesterol levels.

    White tea serves as a preventative against rheumatoid arthritis, and can help alleviate the pain and swelling caused by the disease.

    Black tea shares the antioxidant, cardiovascular and chronic disease-fighting benefits of white, green and oolong teas--however, its processing does eliminate a percentage of its antioxidants and polyphenols. However, black tea is useful in speeding recovery after exercise and in alleviating post-workout muscle soreness.

    Black tea also lowers the body’s cortisol (the “stress hormone”) levels, making it useful in de-stressing after a difficult day or traumatic event.

  • Grow it yourself:

    From Seed:

    Plant seeds one inch deep in individual, four-inch gardening pots with one-half potting soil and one-half perlite or vermiculite, with the pale spot (eye) of the seed positioned horizontally. Place on a germination mat set to 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit, keeping soil relatively moist. Germination should occur in approximately two months, and once the seedlings have four or more leaves, they can be transplanted into 8-inch pots, and placed in an area that receives light morning shade and afternoon sunlight. Apply one inch of water weekly. Once shrubs grow to a height of at least one foot, they can be transplanted to a permanent bed with acidic soil, spaced at least 8 feet apart.

    From a cutting:

    Fill a propagation tray with a 50-50 mixture of potting soil and perlite, and plant the cutting at an angle so that the leaf bud comes in contact with the planting soil mixture.

    Place the tray in a plastic bag, sealing at the top with a rubber band to retain warmth and moisture, on top of a heating mat set to 72 degrees. Open the bag daily to provide the plant with fresh air, using a mister to keep the soil moist but not soggy for approximately eight weeks.

    After eight weeks, gently tug the cutting to ascertain the establishment of roots. If the cutting is anchored, roots have formed and the plant will soon be ready to transplant. When new growth begins to appear, transfer the sapling to an 8-inch pot filled with slightly acidic soil and acclimate the plant to the outdoors by placing it outside for short periods each day. Extend the periods of outdoor time until the plant tolerates 24-hour periods. Transplant in a spot with full sun to partial shade, and water regularly until the plant is fully established.

  • Recipe:


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