Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Growing Your Own Tea

Whether oolong, green or black, teas are all made from the same plant, Camellia sinensis.  It is the processing that makes the difference: withering, fermenting, heating and drying. The fermentation combines various oxidation and enzyme reactions which contribute to the teas unique flavors.  The least processed teas, like some of the Chinese and Japanese green teas, are the un-oxidized teas. The partially oxidized teas include the paochong and oolong teas.  An example of fully oxidized tea is the familiar black tea or English tea.
Anyone who enjoys a good spot of tea should try growing and processing their own.  Even with a small yard, one or two plants will do nicely.  The processing can be a bit time consuming, but even if you choose some short cuts, you can still enjoy a nice, mellow cup of green tea.
Hawaiian grown tea has come a long way since its introduction in 1887.  Since then, a number of business adventures had begun but were eventually abandoned for economic reasons.  In 1997 renewed interest in tea culture began on the Big Island with the development of a novel small-scale processing technique developed by USDA horticulturist  Dr. Francis Zee.  In 2002, the Hawai`i Tea Society was founded by tea growers and enthusiasts alike and offers educational programs in tea culture. 
Backyard enthusiasts can purchase tea plants at most local nurseries.  The tea plant, Camilia sinensis, is a close relative to the ornamental camilias, Camillia japonica and C.sasanqua. The ornamentals are generally 4-6 ft. tall shrubs.  Tea plants are usually pruned to about 4 ft high but can grow as tall as 40 feet.  Tea plants like acidic soils that are well drained.  They also like full sun yet can thrive in foggy environments.   Although tea plants have a natural resistance to many pests, the Chinese rose beetle along with various mites and scale insects may still be a bother. 
The Cooperative Extension Service has a number of excellent publications on growing tea including Guide to Insect and Mite Pests of Tea in Hawai’i and Small-scale Tea Growing and Processing in Hawai`i. If you wish to contact the Hawai`i Tea Society, their website is