Tea bushes naturally grow as shrubs, either arching or spreading sideways like this Montgomery variety or more upright. Photo by Yan Chen/LSU AgCenter
Get It Growing: Tea, a legendary camellia
Heather Kirk-Ballard /LSU AgCenter horticulturist
History tells us that people began consuming tea in China in 2700 B.C. Countless books have been written on the history of tea and how it has made its way from an emperors cup in China to around the globe. The healing properties are heavily documented, and countless studies have been conducted on the medicinal uses of tea. The research continues today.
Tea plants made their way from China to Japan and spread to Taiwan, Burma, Assam and Sri Lanka. The Dutch East India Company brought tea from China to Europe in 1610. Tea is now grown throughout the world in favorable climates.
Tea eventually made its way to America with European settlers. It played a vital role in the establishment of our nation through the passage of the Tea Act, leading to the famous Boston Tea Party that spun our nation into the American Revolution.
How could one plant be so famous, yet most do not know they can grow it in their own backyard?
Most folks don’t realize that tea comes from a camellia. Yes, that’s right. Camellia sinensis is the plant. When we think of camellias, we mostly think of the evergreen, winter-blooming trees that display gorgeous, large flowers in colors of red, pink, white and all kinds of variations.
Camellia sinensis can be grown in USDA hardiness zones 7-9 in acidic, well-drained soils that are high in organic matter in partially shaded areas. Tea plants, like other camellias, are a great understory plant in piney woods that offer acidic soils.
These plants need even moisture and tolerate early morning sun. But they don’t perform well in full sun or afternoon sun. Roots suffer from summer heat and strong winds, so it is important to apply a 2-to-3-inch layer of mulch (preferably pine straw) at the base of the plant.
In south Louisiana, alkaline soils can cause problem. But the addition of an acidifier such as elemental sulfur, aluminum sulfate and iron sulfate will help lower the pH where necessary. In north Louisiana, young plants may suffer from freezing temperatures.
Older, established tea plants only need rainfall and are a great deal more tolerant of full sun and drying winds. Younger plants are less tolerant of full sun and drying winds and should be watered regularly. Fertilize tea plants with azalea-camellia fertilizer or complete fertilizer such as 13-13-13 in late winter before new growth begins.
This shrub makes an excellent ornamental or edible choice for your landscape. The glossy, dark evergreen foliage and delicate white flowers give it its noteworthy characteristics. Plants typically bloom in late fall with small, inconspicuous white and yellow flowers. Growing 10 to 15 feet tall, a tea plant can be trimmed to keep to a smaller size of 4 to 6 feet tall. Although the flowers are inconspicuous when compared to Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua, its use in the landscape is just as worthy.
Camellias can be susceptible to leaf spots, black mold, petal blight, canker and root rot caused by fungal diseases, which can be controlled with fungicides if managed properly. Iron chlorosis can be a problem in alkaline soils and remedied with an acidifying iron supplement. Scale, aphids and spider mites are the main insect pests.
Plant tea in shady or protected areas of your landscape. It makes a great foundation shrub for around the home. In addition, it can be grown as a specimen plant or trimmed as a hedge, and it has an added potential for its use of the leaves for making your own home-brewed tea.
According to the Tea Association of America, next to water, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world. Annual consumption in the United States is over 84 billion servings of tea at more than 3.8 billion gallons with 84% consumed as black tea. The U.S. continues to be the third largest tea importer in the world.
It’s no shocker that the greatest concentration of tea drinkers is in the South and Northeast. Who hasn’t offered company a nice glass of iced tea? Americans are also credited with creating the tea bag.
All teas come from the same Camellia sinensis plant, including black, green, white and oolong. They only differ in the way they are processed. Black teas are fully dried; oolong is partially dried; green and white teas are made from freshly picked leaves.
Brewed tea contains only 2 calories per 8 ounce serving, has no fat or sodium and is packed with flavonoids that wield antioxidant powers. In clinical studies, tea has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, improve heart health and reduce the risk of certain cancers and neurological diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. It also may help improve bone mass density, improve insulin sensitivity in type 2 diabetics and help maintain a healthy body weight.
This legendary plant could be a great addition to your landscape for its ornamental qualities as well as for its use in making home-brewed tea. It makes an even cooler story to be told over a nice glass of sweet iced tea in the evening with friends.