by Christine Parks
Many gardeners are surprised to learn that Camellia sinensis is the most popular camellia in the world. And most tea drinkers in the U.S. have no idea that tea is made from the leaves of a camellia. Like them, I enjoyed tea for decades without giving a second thought to its origin. All I knew was that Golden-tips came from Assam, Genmaicha from Japan, and Red Rose Tea from the grocery store. I got my daily dose of caffeine from coffee and drank as much herbal tea (tisanes) as traditional caffeinated teas. Flash forward 25 years, I’ve given up on coffee and become intimately involved with tea – a relationship grown, both literally and figuratively, through gardening.
Much has been written about herbal tea gardening. I have several of these books, along with various texts on herbal medicines, and an older favorite from my grandmother’s bookshelf, The Herbalist by Joseph E. Meyer and Clarence Meyer (1934). But my own introduction to tea gardening began with Camellia sinensis after moving to North Carolina with my husband, David, when he came home to run Camellia Forest Nursery. Founded in 1979 by his mom, Kai Mei Parks, the nursery started as a small mail order operation built on his dad’s collection of Camellia species and breeding program.
At first, I didn’t know much about Camellias (just like tea) but soon came to appreciate the diverse flowers of Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua. It was their close cousin, Camellia sinensis, though, who stole my heart. While the nursery had grown and sold tea plants for decades, it was my first (and only) trip to China to adopt our daughter that ignited my fascination with tea. While visiting Hangzhou, home to Longjing (Dragonwell) tea, I was amazed by the national tea museum and discovered the qualities of a really fine tea. As we welcomed our daughter home, I fell head over heels into tea and knew how I wanted to spend the rest of my life – tea gardening!
In 2005, we started our first tea garden here in the Piedmont region of North Carolina—including our Camellia Forest favorites—varieties that grow well and are proven to be cold hardy (having survived -15°F in 1985), along with one-of-a-kind tender accessions from his father’s collection (including Assam-type plants and close relatives), and new plants from other North American sites, China, and Korea. Every five years since, we’ve started a new garden, trialing selections from the last along with new acquisitions.
Our expanded plantings have given us plenty of leaf to process, and I’m exploring which plants are best for the different tea types—white, green, oolong, and black. When I started, practical information on tea processing was limited outside the tea industry. I’ve studied the many types of processed tea, learning what variables contribute to their flavors and aromas. I’ve also met many generous tea lovers who come to share their favorite teas and taste teas made from Camellia Forest leaf. I am learning, sip by sip, which qualities delight and how to achieve them.
Camellia Forest Tea Gardens has grown from a collector’s and hobby garden to a community space for learning, sharing tea, and growing new friendships. Since the beginning, the garden was intended to be a place where people can learn about growing and making tea. We regularly host interns and volunteers, tours, and students in classes designed to empower and inspire gardeners. I also wrote the book I wished I had when I was starting: Grow Your Own Tea (Timber Press, 2020). My current intern, a student in agricultural education, has developed our volunteer program. Recently, we have begun creating content for Patreon to share our story and help support the garden and our educational mission; not everyone can visit for in-person classes, but all are welcome to join our gardener’s membership and learn alongside us here at Camellia Forest!
Any long-term relationship takes effort, and sometimes I have to ask myself, Why do I love growing tea? One of my favorite reasons is that tea gardening requires slowing down to meet the rhythm of the plant over the years and seasons. Fourteen hundred years ago, tea traveled alongside Buddhism to Japan and Korea—a perfect pairing. The relaxing qualities imparted by L-theanine, together with the stimulating effects of caffeine, support focused attention. Harvesting and processing tea by hand can be a timeless and meditative activity. Tea aroma is especially pleasurable, even intoxicating, as the leaves travel from garden to teacup—plants in the sunshine, freshly plucked leaf, and the aromas that develop with processing. Last, but not least, bees love tea (flowers)!
I’m looking forward to presenting a guide to tea gardening for The Herb Society of America, which will include plenty of “how to.” Thanks for letting me share my personal “why.”
Join Christine Wednesday, March 23 at 1pm Eastern for her webinar: Grow Your Own Tea. Our webinars are free to The Herb Society of America members and $5.00 for guests. Become a member today, and enjoy all of our webinars for free along with access to the webinar library with over fifty program titles. To register, visit https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-education/hsa-webinars/
Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of the author