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What Is a Tea Plant?
The common tea plant—Camellia sinensis—is a species of flowering plant that produces leaves that make tea. The tea bush is native to Asia, likely tropical southern China, though it is now cultivated all over the world, mostly in India, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Kenya. The leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant produce oolong tea, black tea, green tea, and white tea, which are considered the four true teas. Herbal teas like chamomile or rooibos are tisanes, which are not grown from the common tea plant.
The type of tea that grows from the common tea bush is determined by where and how the tea plant grows when the leaves were harvested, and how long the tea leaves are left to dry or oxidize. Strong teas like black tea or oolong tea are made from mature leaves and left to oxidize longer, and young teas like white tea and green tea are made from younger leaves that oxidize for less time. Tea plants may take up to three years to mature and produce a harvest, but you can grow and care for a tea plant in your own home garden. Since they are native to mostly tropical regions of the world, tea plants flourish in warm temperatures and grow year-round when in a warm climate.
The 2 Main Types of Tea Plants
The two main types of Camellia sinensis cultivars used to make most tea are Camellia sinensis var. sinensis and Camellia sinensis var. assamica. Both plants produce oolong tea, black tea, green tea and white tea. Here is a little more about both variations.
- Camellia sinensis var. sinensis: The sinensis variation of the tea plant produces hardy, small-leafed teas that typically yield milder flavors of green or white tea.
- Camellia sinensis var. assamica: The assamica variation of the tea plant produces larger-leafed teas. Assamica bushes are often used to cultivate teas with more robust flavors, like oolong or black teas, or Assam tea, a black tea named for a region in India.
How Is Tea Grown?
Tea plants can be grown in a few different ways. Some methods include:
- From a seed: Growing tea plants from a seed is a long and labor-intensive process because tea leaves need to be at least three years old before harvesting. Before the tea seeds are planted in the ground, seeds need to be germinated and nurtured first, by soaking and germinating the seeds—often inside, in a temperature-regulated environment. This method has a fairly low success rate of producing plants that yield tea, but it can pay off if you have plenty of time to cultivate the seeds.
- From seedlings: Tea growers will sometimes transplant bare-root tea seedlings from one area of a tea plantation to another when a larger number of plants are needed. You can purchase the sprouted seedling of a tea plant from a nursery, which you can plant in your garden.
- From cuttings: A quicker way to produce harvestable tea than planting them from seeds is to propagate cuttings from established tea bushes by dipping the cuttings in a plant-rooting hormone, and replanting them in soil.
How to Plant Tea in 7 Steps
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You can grow your own tea garden outside or inside your home or greenhouse.
- Buy tea seeds. Find tea seeds online or at your local nursery. Camellia sinensis var. sinensis seeds are the more hardy choice, but assamica will work if you live in a tropical climate. You can also cut plants from an existing tea bush to propagate the plant or purchase a plant that has already sprouted.
- Prepare your soil. Tea thrives in sandy and acidic soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5. If your soil doesn’t make that pH, you can add pine needles or sulfur to make it more acidic. Your soil should drain well, and your tea plants should have enough room to spread apart by at least three feet.
- Soak and dry out your seeds. If you’re planting tea from seeds, soak them in a bowl for 24 to 48 hours, discarding any that float to the top. After soaking, drain the seeds and lay them out on a towel in the sun, keeping them moist with spritzes of water every few hours. After one or two days, the hull of your seeds should crack, which is when they are ready to be sown.
- Nurture your seeds. Place your germinated seeds with their eyes parallel to the surface in a small pot or planter’s tray filled about one inch deep with soil or vermiculite—a brown mineral that helps seeds maintain moisture. Keep the soil or potting mix moist—but not overly wet—for a few weeks until your seedlings start to sprout.
- Plant your tea. After the germination process, your tea seedlings should be around seven to eight inches tall and have at least three to four leaves. If you plan on keeping them in a pot, transfer them to one that is at least six inches deep. If you’re planting them outside, keep your seedlings about three feet apart. Your planting location should receive both partial sun and partial shade, at least six hours of sunlight a day.
- Water your tea plant every day. Tea plants need to be watered regularly but will rot if overwatered. Water your tea enough to keep the soil moderately moist without soaking the roots.
- Allow your plant to grow. Growing tea from seed is a lengthy process, and it can take two to three years of growing before the leaves are ready to harvest.
Harvesting and Processing Your Tea
After you grow your tea, it’s ready to harvest and process. To harvest tea from your plant, you’ll need a pair of clean shears to snip away the green leaves. Processing tea will involve drying it out for a specific amount of time related to what kind of tea you’re growing, after which it will be ready to drink or store. Here is how to harvest and process the four main types of tea grown from the Camellia sinensis bush.
- Green tea: Green tea leaves are harvested from the highest part of the plant, which has received the most sun. Once you harvest them, air dry these leaves in the shade for a few hours, then heat them in a frying pan for about five minutes. Spread the leaves out on a baking sheet and bake in your oven at 250 degrees Fahrenheit for about 20 minutes before brewing or storing.
- Black tea: Cut the largest, most mature-looking leaves from your bush for black tea, and roll them between your fingers until they turn dark. Spread them out on a baking sheet in a cool location for around three days. Bake the leaves in the oven at 250 degrees Fahrenheit for approximately 20 minutes. Leave your tea leaves out at room temperature until they take on an even darker, richer color, then use or store them.
- White tea: This delicate tea is a result of minimal processing, resulting in a lighter color and flavor profile. Pick the leaves that haven’t fully opened, then spread them out on a sheet and let them wither in the sun for one to three days. Bake them at around 110 degrees Fahrenheit or quickly heat them in a skillet for one to two minutes to stop the oxidation process. Wait for the leaves to cool before using or storing them.
- Oolong tea: For oolong tea, choose the largest leaves from your tea plant. Leave them out in the sun for about 30 minutes to an hour, then bring them inside so that they can adjust to room temperature, where they will rest again for six to ten hours. Stir or shake the leaves every hour to help them oxidize. Once the aroma is nice and strong, heat them in a pan for a few minutes or bake them for 20 minutes at 250 degrees Fahrenheit to stop the oxidation process.
7 Tips for Growing Tea
Growing tea requires plenty of patience, but giving your tea plant the right care can ensure a successful harvest. Below is a list of tips to help grow and care for your tea plant.
- Keep your plants warm. Tea plants thrive with a long and warm growing season, so you want to plant them in early spring or after the first frost has passed. Ideally, your tea plant should be kept at a temperature of around 70 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. The benefit of container-growing tea is that you can bring the pots inside if the weather changes unfavorably. If a big frost unexpectedly hits your garden bed before your tea plant has matured, you may end up losing your plant if you are unable to dig it up and transfer it indoors.
- Add sphagnum moss for indoor container growing. Tea plants do not like to have their roots saturated with water. Adding sphagnum moss can help your soil retain moisture and nutrients without subjecting your plants to overwatering.
- Mulch your plants. Mulching your plants periodically can keep weeds and pests away from your tea plants while keeping your soil moist.
- Prune your tea bush. Pruning your tea plant can help prevent overcrowding and pest or disease growth while increasing the quality and yield of your crop. Trim your plant so that you have four to six main branches that help maintain its bushy shape. After your first year of regular pruning, you can switch to light pruning, which is sometimes referred to as skiffing or tipping.
- Feed your tea plants. Though tea plants are hardy, you can use organic fertilizers like compost tea or fish emulsion to keep your crop thriving.
- Keep your stored leaves dry. If you plan on storing your tea for a longer period of time, make sure all the leaves are dry before storing them in an airtight container.
- Protect your tea plants from pests and diseases. Homemade pepper sprays, insecticidal soaps, or neem oil can keep your tea plants safe from pests like caterpillars, aphids, and mites. Look out for warning signs of tea plant diseases like root rot and flower blight—including black, mushy roots—which can be treated by switching up your watering habits or administering fungicidal applications.
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