Next to water, tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world — and it can be grown by gardeners in the U.S.
Where I live in Asia, it isn’t as widely drunk as it is in neighbouring countries like China and Japan. But its health benefits, especially those of green tea, are starting to get more widely recognized. An increasing number of Filipinos are drinking green tea, and many grocery stores sell different kinds of them. But their prices can be quite prohibitive.
That’s why I was so happy when I received a seedling from a friend several years ago. I was excited at the prospect of having an unlimited source of tea leaves right from my backyard. I didn’t know much about the plant then, and I harvested the leaves much too early. The seedling was merely a foot high when I started plucking the leaves for my husband and I to enjoy. Before long — and much to my dismay — the plant died. We were only able to consume about 2 to 3 cups from my short-lived tea plant.
Whether its demise was due to my over-picking or to some other reason, I determined to find out more about tea plants. Green tea, I learned, and its variants – black, oolong (“woo-long”), white, yellow and Pu-erh — are all derived from the plant Camellia sinensis. It is an evergreen shrub or small tree whose leaves and flowers are esteemed all around the world as a beverage and for their healing properties. It originated in China more than 4,000 years ago then spread to Europe through Portuguese traders. Now there are around 3,000 different strains and varieties across the globe.
The 2 main varieties grown commercially for tea are the Camellia sinensis var. Sinensis from China, which is characterized by its small leaves, and Camellia sinensis var. assamica from Assam, India, which has bigger ones. The sinensis variety is used mostly in Chinese, Japanese and Formosan teas, while the assamica is used in Pu-erh and most Indian teas.
Tea camellias flourish in full sun or part shade. Although they grow best in tropical and sub-tropical climates, they’re resilient and hardy enough to be propagated in cooler climates. In the US, they thrive in Zones 7 to 9. In colder states, they do well in protected areas like a greenhouse or on a porch, as long as they’re brought indoors during the winter. (Most tea varieties can withstand temperatures down to 20 degrees F.) If they’re taken indoors, they need to be placed in an area where there’s plenty of light – by a big, tall window or under grow lights. Young plants, especially, need 6 hours of bright light per day.
The sinensis variety can grow up to 30 feet while the assamica can shoot up into a fully grown tree at 50 feet, if left undisturbed. When cultivated, though, camellias are pruned to just 3 to 5 feet for ease of picking. Also, regular pruning leads to thicker growth, more new shoots and better tea quality, too.
These plants become dormant in the winter and stop producing foliage, but in the spring and summer, they sprout new leaves and small buds called “flushes.” This new growth, which replenishes itself every 1 to 2 weeks, is what is used for tea.
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In the fall, small white flowers with a delightful scent start to appear. These can be plucked, dried and added to the leaves to enhance the flavor of tea. Leaves that are slow to develop are said to produce better-flavored brews. Normally, a healthy bush will produce about a quarter pound of tea leaves a year, and continue producing for up to 100 years! So whether you choose to plant it in a pot or on the ground, make sure its final home will be wide enough for the roots to spread out.
You can grow tea camellias from seeds, seedlings or cuttings. According to The Herb Gardener blog, seeds should be sown in the spring when night-time temperatures reach 55 degrees F or more. Seeds should be soaked in water for a day or so before planting, and then sown in small pots indoors in a sunny window with a combination of perlite and orchid mix. 
Tea plants like moist, well-drained, slightly acidic soil. To retain the soil’s moisture and reduce weeds, you can add a layer of moss or mulch on the base of the plant. A nurseryman at a camellia growing center in Altadena, California, recommends using 50 percent peat moss and commercial camellia mix on top of a drainage layer of gravel or wire mesh. “Even though tea thrives in some of the rainiest places on earth,” he says, “it can’t tolerate wet feet.” 
Since tea camellias love humid weather, spray them frequently. The seeds should begin sprouting within 4 to 6 weeks.
Tea plants are prone to insects like aphids, caterpillars, scales, mites and mosquitos which can tatter leaves. Control them with an organic insecticide.
Harvest and Processing
The thing about growing tea camellias, though, is that it requires a lot of patience. First of all, they’re slow starters and won’t be ready for harvesting until the age of 3 years. Then, once you’re finally able to harvest, processing will take a bit of time, too, especially if you opt for black tea.
Processing is done in a variety of ways that will determine your tea’s flavor and medicinal value. Green and white teas undergo less processing and thus have higher nutritional content. Oolong and black teas are handled more extensively and go through fermentation, which reduces the concentration of polyphenols and their beneficial effects.
For green tea, the top 2-3 leaves and the unopened bud at the tip are picked. These are dried in the shade for several hours, then steamed for about a minute to prevent fermentation. (For no-fuss steaming they can just be placed in a colander over a pot of boiling water.) They are then dried completely in an oven at 250 degrees F for 20 minutes. (For even drying, the leaves may be spread out on a baking sheet.)
For oolong tea, leaves are laid on a towel under the sun and allowed to wilt for about 45 minutes. Then they’re brought under a shade to continue wilting for another 8 to 10 hours. The leaves are stirred every hour, and the edges start to turn noticeably red as they dry. They are then brought inside, pan-heated on low heat at around 120 to 150 degrees F for 15 minutes.
For black tea, newly picked leaves are bruised by being rolled between the hands or under a rolling pin until they’re crinkled and discoloured to a reddish brown. They’re spread out on a tray and allowed to air dry for 2 to 3 days, then finally and completely dried in an oven.
White tea, for its part, is made from unopened buds only. The same drying process is used for green tea.
These procedures may take some getting used to, but once you get the hang of them, you could experiment by varying the drying times to achieve different levels of tea strength. You can also vary flavors by adding herbs (rosehip, chamomile), fruits (citruses, berries, melon or even cantaloupe) or edibleflowers like jasmine, honeysuckle, violets, roses or hibiscus to yourpreparation.
If you’re a heavy tea drinker, think of how much money you can save by growing and producing your own tea leaves! Elliott, Sara. The Herb Gardener, June 2009.  Spurrier, Jeff. Homegrown Tea: How to Raise Your Own Brewable Plants. The Los Angeles Times, March 19, 2013.