tea farm in Mississippi

The Unsung Heroes of the Plants We Drink: Tea

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By Audrey Kolde, NCAT Agriculture Specialist

Tea, a beverage enjoyed worldwide, is a subject of growing interest among specialty crop farmers in the Gulf South. The process of producing tea, from the tea seed to the cup, is a complex and fascinating one. The tea we drink is obtained from the leaves of a bush native to Asia. However, this plant is also ornamental in many parts of the world, including the Gulf South, a.k.a. the Camellia bush. The journey of tea from seed to cup involves harvesting, withering, rolling, oxidizing, and drying. As interest in locally sourced and sustainably grown products continues, tea cultivation in the Gulf South could become an exciting new venture for farmers and tea lovers alike.

Varieties of Tea Plants

There are two main types of Camellia sinensis cultivars used to produce most teas: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis and Camellia sinensis var. assamica. Both plants can produce oolong, black, green, and white tea.

Camellia sinensis var. sinensis: This variation of the tea plant typically yields milder flavors of green or white tea. The sinensis variation is native to China and thrives in cooler climates, producing hardy, small-leafed teas.

Camellia sinensis var. assamica: This variation of the tea plant produces larger-leafed teas. Assamica bushes cultivate teas with more robust flavors, like oolong or black teas, which are black teas named after the region in India where they originate. Assamica plants hail from the Assam region of India and prefer warmer temperatures and higher humidity.

Cultivation Techniques

Are you excited to grow some tea? Remember that propagating tea plants from seeds or cuttings is a labor-intensive process. Once you have your plants in the field, you’ll need to give them regular pruning and fertilization to ensure they grow well and produce optimal yields. Remember to provide them with plenty of nitrogen so they can produce lots of leaves!

The type of tea that grows from the typical tea bush is determined by various factors, including where and how the plant is grown, when the leaves are harvested, and the length of time the tea leaves are left to dry and oxidize. Black tea and oolong tea are more robust teas made from mature leaves and left to oxidize for extended periods, while white tea and green tea are milder and made from younger leaves that oxidize for less time. It may take a few years for your tea plants to mature and yield a harvest, but it’s worth the wait! You can even grow a tea plant in your home garden. Tea plants thrive in warm temperatures and can grow year-round in a warm climate, as they are native to primarily tropical regions.

Harvesting and Processing Your Tea

Congratulations on growing your own tea! The next step is to harvest and process it. Don’t worry—it’s more straightforward than it sounds. You only need clean shears to snip away the green leaves to get started. Once you’ve harvested your tea, the next step is to dry it out for a specific amount of time, based on the type of tea you’re growing. After that, you can enjoy your homegrown tea or store it for later.

Green tea:

Green tea comes from the highest part of the tea plant. After picking the leaves, air-dry them in the shade for a little while before heating in a frying pan for about five minutes. Then, spread the leaves out and bake them in the oven at 250°F for 20 minutes. This last step helps remove moisture and gives the tea a more robust flavor. After baking, you can brew your tea or store it for later. Enjoy!

Black tea:

Pick the biggest and most mature-looking leaves from your plant for black tea and start rolling them between your fingers until they turn dark. Then, spread them on a baking sheet and let them dry in a cool place for about three days. Once ready, bake them in the oven at 250°F for around 20 minutes. Finally, let your tea leaves cool down to room temperature until they have a darker and richer color. After that, you’re good to go — use or store them as you please.

White tea:

Pick the leaves that haven’t fully opened and let them wither in the sun for a few days. Once ready, you can either bake them at 110°F or quickly heat them in a skillet for one to two minutes to stop the oxidation process. Once they’ve cooled down, you’re good to go. This minimal processing method will give your tea a light color and flavor profile that will impress. Enjoy!

Oolong tea:

Choose the largest leaves from your tea plant. Leave them in the sun for 30 to 60 minutes, and then bring them inside to adjust to room temperature. Rest them again for six to 10 hours. Stir or shake the leaves every hour to help them oxidize. Once the aroma is pleasant and robust, heat them in a pan for a few minutes or bake them for 20 minutes at 250°F to stop the oxidation process.

As tea lovers worldwide continue to demand the best-quality tea produced sustainably, tea producers are exploring innovative and eco-friendly cultivation techniques. Growers are working hard to create a more sustainable and resilient tea industry using agroforestry, organic and biodynamic farming, and advanced agricultural technology. These efforts benefit the land and the communities that rely on it while providing a local tea economy.

Watch for the Voices from the Field podcast to drop in May as I talk with The Great Mississippi Tea Company about their farm.

Related ATTRA Resources:

Topic Area: Agroforestry

Tree and Shrub Establishment: Central and Southern Appalachian Region

Other Resources:

Growing Tea in Louisiana

Tea Time in Mississippi

This blog is produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG.