The tea plant (Camellia sinensis) is a tree native to subtropical Asia. Tea is grown commercially in many countries, including China, India, Kenya, Sri Lanka and Turkey and that’s not surprising: tea is the second most widely consumed beverage in the world. Only water beats it! But you don’t need to undertake a long voyage to see a living tea plant, because you can easily grow one on your windowsill.
Not the Same as the “Tea Tree”
Note that the plant we’re discussing here is commonly called tree plant, Camellia sinensis, and is from the tea family or Theaceae. It’s the one that gives us tea leaves and produces your favorite tea. The tea tree is one of various plants in the myrtle family from New Zealand and Australia, including Leptospermum scoparium and Melaleuca alternifolia, some used medicinally as “tea oil”. But they are very different plants.
The tea plant
The tea plant can reach up to 55 feet (17 m) tall in the wild, but is extensively pruned to facilitate harvesting, which usually gives a shrub some 4 to 6 feet (1 or 2 m) in height. It produces small but pretty white flowers with yellow stamens, somewhat like small magnolias. It is a very close relative of the camellia (C. japonica), whose pink, red, or white flowers, often double, are much larger and more attractive. Still, if your tea plant ever blooms, you’ll certainly appreciate the show.
The tea we consume is derived from its leaves: according to the treatment given, the same leaves can give green tea, white tea, black tea, oolong tea, etc.
For gardeners in temperate climates, the tea plant can only be grown as a houseplant. Of course, you can put it outdoors for summer, but you’ll have to bring it back indoors before winter. There are a few select “hardy” strains that will survive in protected spots in the USDA hardiness zone 7 (AgCan zone 8), but in general, you’d have to live in a subtropical climate (zone 9) to be able to grow tea outdoors year round.
The tea plant can make a pretty foliage plant with its shiny dark green leaves with finely toothed margins… and if yours blooms, you’ll certainly appreciate the small white flowers, but it normally takes several years before a tea plant reaches blooming size, at least under typical home conditions. And if you harvest too diligently, regularly removing new growth, it may never bloom at all.
In the winter, give your tea plant a bright sunny spot and, if possible, cooler conditions, about 40 to 60?F (5 to 15?C), although it will grow fairly well enough at average indoor temperatures. During the summer, it will prefer a bit of protection from intense sun, perhaps a spot where it gets shade in the afternoon. You can grow it in full sun too, as long as you don’t let it bake in the brutal heat near a south window.
Pot up your tea plant into typical houseplant soil and water thoroughly when the soil is dry to the touch. Good air humidity is important during the winter, so a room humidifier can be a major asset. It prefers diluted but regular feedings, at about one quarter of the recommended rate, using the fertilizer of your choice (it’s not a picky feeder), from spring to fall. Avoid fertilizing in winter when the plant is essentially resting.
The tea plant prefers acidic soil (pH 6 to 6.5)… which is normally the pH of commercial potting mixes. On the other hand, tap and well water in many areas is very hard (alkaline), so over time the soil may tend to become too alkaline. A summer stay outdoors can therefore be helpful, as rainwater is soft and will help dissolve and flush out the lime that causes the problem. If not, repotting annually in late winter into fresh soil will help keep the pH in the right range.
You can multiply your tea plant by cuttings or seeds. Several seed companies offer tea seeds in their catalogs, notably Richters and Chiltern Seeds and sometimes tea plants are offered in local garden centers. If not, try visiting a herb specialist. And plants are relatively easy to find on the Internet, notably at Logees and Territorial Seed Company in the US and Flora Exotica in Canada.
To prepare green tea, simply pluck fresh leaves and infuse them in hot water. The plant will react to your pruning by growing new leaves. Just don’t harvest all the leaves at once or you’ll weaken your plant; instead, pick a cluster of leaves here and there. The harvest season will normally range from March to October. Removing leaves during the winter months is not a good idea.
Making green tea from your tea plant is simple enough: just harvest leaves and buds, chop them up, and let them steep in hot water. Black tea requires bruising the leaves so they turn brown, then letting them dry. Experiment to find how you best like to serve your homegrown tea!
Now for the bad news: you won’t be able to wow your neighbors by inviting them over for tea made from your tea plant, at least not all at the same time. A young plant will provide at most 1 or 2 cups a year, although once it is mature, you may be able to get a few cups every 2 months. It will take many plants ? and good-sized ones at that! ? to be able to drink fresh tea on a more daily basis!