Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Tea time- Camellia sinensis

Though I know the infeasibility of having a tea plantation in your backyard, you can still pretend to have a mini green tea paradise with a couple, few, maybe even a half dozen or so Camellia sinensis plants in your yard if you live in the Midsouth, or ZONES 7+.

As many people are aware, green tea has many known health benefits and I'm going to avoid sounding like a Lipton or Snapple commercial and just blather on instead on the awesomeness of being able to grow Camellia sinensis.

The reason for my bringing up the topic is because camellias are pretty ubiquitous to the South and now that the weather has been cooling off, I've kept my eye on the shiny evergreen leaves and buds of my neighbors' Camellia trees, some of which have branches that are so large and heavy they touch the ground and look like giant living green castles more than trees.

Anyways, the neighbor's camellia buds have begun to open and so I went to check out my 2 little tea plants in pots and whaddyaknow? Lovely ain't it?

I wonder if the rain and humidity reminds the plants of mountain air in India or China or something, because there are a bunch of buds ready to bust open, which is exciting, because the fragrance is, and I never use this word, DIVINE. It's truly heady, a combination of jasmine and orange blossoms and that otherness that makes it a green tea blossom I suppose.

Unfortunately the rain makes the flowers brown and the scent more faded, but once things dry up (hopefully soon!) I'll be greeted at my door with this scent every time I step out and hopefully NOT be swarmed by mosquitoes (cross fingers this does not attract them).

I have kept my plants outside all year round, only bringing them into the garage when the weather looks like it'll be severe (frost/hail), and they've been very hardy to everything it appears as long as they receive adequate water. I've had no bug issues really of any kind other than spiders liking to spend some time there rolling up a leaf or two for a leafy tunnel home.

The location I've kept my plants at is somewhat protected, a wall at the west with some light tree and bush cover in front facing south so that it gets direct, filtered light, enough to prevent sun scald.

Tea plants are typically pruned into a bush form (at waist high for easy picking) so that they have many many little branches to form many many little leaves on, with the most prized 2 leaves and a tip thing for the finest teas.

While I am very far away from that point of having a well fleshed out tea plant, I see promise in my plants.

Ok, I have a confession: I haven't given my tea plants their necessary pruning yet because it always seems like there's something potentially pretty on it that I don't want to cut off... and while I've amassed a good amount of literature on the proper methods to take care of/propagate/prune my plants early on when I got them... I sort of haven't reviewed them in a long while and I need to figure out when is the best time to actually start chopping (I mean, pruning).

So, that's why I'm writing about it so I can get my butt in gear AND inform other people to not be dumb and wait as long as I do :)

After reviewing the literature again, it seems that:
"When the tea plants reach a height of about one to two feet above ground, it is cut back and pruned to within a few inches off the ground. Trimming back encourages new shoots to form and increases yield. Regular 2 to 3 year pruning cycles encourages a fresh supply of new shoots and further increases yield."

I'm not too late! My plants are about 2 to 2 1/4 feet high, so they're not too big, though I still HATE the idea of cutting off all that growth... a stick/stump in a pot feels rather painful, but if it has to be done... of course if it ends up dying, I'm going to be a very unhappy person.

Unfortunately, there is no info as to WHEN to prune...

But thank you Gardens Ablaze for that:
Cutting out dead and weak stems can be done anytime, but severe pruning, or shearing all the leaves to shape the plant, should only be done from mid-February through early May - basically after flowering and before new growth begins."
---from, http://www.gardensablaze.com/Shrubs/ShrubsCamellia.htm

Cool, so now that all of that is in order I will be prepared to see my tea plants in new splendid glory for next year and as I like to do with basil and such, use the pruning cutting to make tea plant clone babies!

Cal's Plant of the Week, a service by the University of Oklahoma Department of Botany & Microbiology suggests that
Camellia sinensis are propagated by cutting or seed. Soak seed in warm water for 24 hours before sowing. Hardwood cuttings should be taken from winter to summer, treated with rooting hormone and with bottom heat of 72 degrees recommended. Rooting is slow."

Though I do have a tea fruit developing/developed on one of my plants (it's been there forever it seems), I understand that seed propagation is notoriously difficult so while I might attempt it... I"ll just keep myself in pessimism mode and not feel crappy if it doesn't sprout and whatnot.
Finally, here are some interesting facts about tea to encourage your to grow your own:

(1) Green tea has chemical compounds that fight against the "bad-breath" bacteria (certainly a more refreshing, non-drying alcohol way to kills mouth bacteria compared to commercial mouthwashes!)
(2) A compound in tea seems to be able to reverse methicillin bacteria resistance, therefore giving us a potential way out of this antibiotic resistance mess (other than the obvious, stop abusing of antibiotics in general of course)

Links on how to pick and process your tea leaves into the different varieties (pun intended):
http://coffeetea.about.com/od/preparation/a/growingtea.htm http://www.imperialteagarden.com/CamelliaSinensis.html

Thorough info on Camellia sinesis: