A few weeks ago, my wife and I made a trek down to Charleston, SC. On the way, we stopped at the only working tea plantation in the country:
We took the trolley tour and learned all about how tea goes from bush to beverage.
Here are some details about the plantation:
Located 25 minutes outside of Charleston on Wadmalaw Island, the plantation produces American Classic Tea and offers public tours. Founded in 1960, the plantation hosts several hundred thousand tea bushes, which are descendants of bushes originally brought over from China and India during the 1800s.
According to our tour guide, the US government became concerned in the 1950’s that Soviet-allied countries would shut off tea exports to their NATO rivals. So the plantation was established to see if America’s climate can successfully support tea production. With the heat and humidity around Charleston, Wadmalaw Island seemed like a good place to experiment. As the cold war waned, the plantation fell into disarray until the Bigelow Tea Company bought and restored it a few years ago.
The restoration isn’t complete, but here’s a look at one of the mature fields:
There is only one species of plant in the world that makes true tea. It’s called camellia sinensus. Depending on how long the plant’s clippings are allowed to oxidize in the processing stage, the same leaves produce green, oolong or black tea. The plants are naturally resistant to disease and insects, so they’ll live forever as long as they don’t die of drought or root rot.
Here’s how it works… the tea bushes are carefully pruned to maximize leaf production. Once they reach the proper height and width, they are kept at that size forever. Clippings are then used only for harvest or for transplanting to new fields. When spring rolls around, the bushes sprout new growth on top just like your hedges at home. The new sprigs are cut and collected with this machine:
It’s basically the bastard offspring of a tobacco harvester and a cotton gin. The tea bushes are shaped and spaced so that the rows fits perfectly beneath this machine’s undercarriage.
Depending on the weather during spring and summer, there can be up to 20 harvests per year. The most sought-after tea comes from the first harvest of the season, known as the “first flush.” These leaves are more flavorful because they are filled with the nutrients the plant stored throughout the winter.
It was a pretty quick and enjoyable tour, even if it was a little pricey. We bought three jars of loose leaf tea – Plantation Peach, Rockville Raspberry, and Governor Gray. Click here for more: Charleston Tea Plantation