Learn What’s in Your “Tea” and How to Grow Your Own

Many drinks we call tea are correctly known as tisanes. Here's how to grow your own tea plant and harvest its leaves to make delicious beverages.

by Dawn Combs
PHOTO: Shutterstock

Summer is sun tea season. My love for this drink has only deepened as I’ve grown older. Of course, if you call this drink “simple,” you haven’t been drinking it.

The first controversy is sweet tea versus unsweetened. If you live in the South, sweet tea is a form of cultural pride. When I travel to the southern states for a conference, I pack my own tea. I know I won’t encounter a restaurant, gas station or grocery store that stocks the unsweetened version. That gives my particular position away in this particular battle. I love mine unsweetened. I like to taste the tea itself. I gag in a horrible way that embarrasses my husband if I mistakenly drink the sweet version.

The next controversy is a pretty basic one. What do you mean when you say “tea?” It covers so much ground as a common term. It applies to black, green, red, white or herbal format—and I know I’m forgetting some.

What Is and Is Not Tea

At our soda cafe, we serve a lot of “tea.” I repeatedly have to explain myself. The proper name for a drink that is a blend of herbs is as a tisane. In addition, you must consider a whole host of plants that were used in the early years of our country as tea substitutes. These appeared in drinks such as “Liberty Tea.” Next up? Plants such as New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) and Bee Balm (Monarda spp.). These taste a lot like the true tea plant but are not related. The only thing that is technically a tea is any drink that is made with the Camellia sinensis plant.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

The tea plant is the source of black, green, yellow, white, assam, darjeeling, pu errh, matcha, oolong and kukicha. They are all from Camellia sinensis or one of its varietals. As it is grown today for the commercial market, this plant is a shrub. It can grow to be a tree if left alone.

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C. sinensis is hardy to zone 8 and is a subtropical plant. Here in the United States, a few places can grow tea outdoors year-round, but where I live in Ohio is not one of them. Just the same, that doesn’t mean that I can’t grow my own.

How to Grow Your Own

In temperate areas, grow the tea plant in a pot outside and bring it in during the winter. Otherwise you need a greenhouse. In Ohio, my most important considerations are keeping the plant dormant in the winter months. This means that once the temperature drops below 60 degrees F at night, I move it inside. C. sinensis needs to be kept between a steady 35 and 60 degrees to keep it from budding out. This dormancy keeps the plant in a holding pattern until temperatures increase enough outside.

When you move the plant back outside it’s a good time to fertilize. It needs an acid soil, so a good acidifier applied to the top of the soil just before you want to encourage growth is all you need each year. It also likes magnesium, so an epsom salts tea (1 Tbsp/gallon of water) applied twice a year also helps. C. sinensis does not like wet feet, but it grows in a humid location with periodic heavy rainfall. Water the plant thoroughly when the top feels dry, and keep it in a humid location for best results.

It’s ready to pick when the new shoots begin to emerge. The highest quality teas are made from the first “flush” of new growth. Kukicha is made from the twigs; all the other colors of tea are made through varying degrees of oxygenation created in differing drying processes. As a novice, try picking your leaves, roll them gently between your thumb and finger and lay them out on a dehydrator sheet. Dry them at the herb drying temperature and remove as soon as they are crisp. You will have approximated a black tea.

Growing your own tea in a temperate zone never equates to much of a harvest. You need to wait three years before the plant has enough leaves to withstand your pruning of all its fresh growth. Whatever you get will go together to make a batch of sun tea. It will outshine everyone else on the block and make you the envy of anyone who grew up loving the summer precisely for a sip of an ice-cold classic.

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