How to Grow Tea Plant (Camellia Sinensis)

Tea leaves on a woven tray

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Almost every tea enjoyed comes from a specific species of plant known as the camellia sinensis. There are two varieties of this plant that each yield different types of teas, with specific characteristics that define each one. Black tea (called "red tea" in China because of the color of the brew) is the strongest-tasting variety due to its oxidation time in processing. Oolong tea, known for its flowery notes, is less oxidized. Green tea, the mildest variety, does not undergo oxidation at all and is pan-fried in processing to prevent oxidation from occurring.

Camellia sinensis (or tea plant) is a fast-growing shrub used to make most traditional caffeinated teas, including black tea, white tea, oolong tea, and green tea. This plant originated near the southwest region of China as an evergreen forest shrub. The leaves are glossy green with serrated edges and are similar in both shape and size to a bay leaf. Tea plant does best when planted after the last frost, in well-draining, sandy soil, and shouldn't be harvested until it's three years old.

As the story goes, tea plant was first stumbled upon by accident in 2737 B.C. The emperor at the time was boiling water in his garden when a leaf from the overhanging camellia sinensis tree drifted into his pot. The combination yielded a drink that compelled him to research the tree further, uncovering both medicinal and palatable properties.

Tea plant glossy leaves closeup
The Spruce / K. Dave
Botanical Name Camellia Sinensis
Common Name Tea Plant
Plant Type Evergreen shrub
Mature Size 3-7 ft. tall
Sun Exposure Partial 
Soil Type Well-drained, sandy
Soil pH Neutral to acidic, acidic 
Bloom Time Fall
Flower Color White
Hardiness Zones 6-9 (USDA)
Native Area China

Tea Plant Care

Harvesting camellia sinensis must be done by hand, as only the top leaves should be plucked. During plucking—the tea industry's term for harvesting—look for young leaves at the top of the plant, particularly those with tips, or small, partially formed leaves. Pluck a group, or "flush," of leaves, taking care to include a small portion of the stem containing two to five leaves and the tip. A flush of just two or three leaves is known as a "golden flush." On rare occasions, the twigs and flowers of the plant are also used. Generally, the plants are kept from blooming to divert their energy to the valuable leaves. However, some backyard growers prefer the pretty white flowers that bloom in the fall.

Tea is harvested during the warmer months when the plant is growing strong. In northern climates, this results in only a four-month window. However, in tropical regions, cultivars may have up to eight months of regular harvests.

Light

Tea plants do best in partial sun; they need the sun's energy to produce blooms.

Soil

High-quality soil is what camellia sinensis thrives in. Rich, sandy, well-draining loam is the key, and it needs to be acidic.

Water

Tea plants are not tolerant of drought, but they don't enjoy sitting in soggy soil either. It's best to let the top few inches dry out between waterings.

Temperature and Humidity

Hot summer months are fine for tea plants so long as they get enough shade. With too much humidity, they can fall prey to fungal disease. Space them well in your garden to encourage air circulation.

Fertilizer

Tea plants don't need much feeding. A slow-release, all-purpose fertilizer fed once in the spring is all your plant needs to help it bloom.

Camellia Sinensis vs. Camellia Japonica

The flowers of the tea plant camellia (Camellia sinensis) are white with yellow stamens and bloom earlier than Japanese camellia (Camellia japonica) shrubs, which may bloom in winter or early spring. Although the Japanese camellia is highly valued for its range of colors and availability of double, rose-like blooms, the tea plant camellia offers fragrant blooms in a shrub that is a full zone hardier. Gardeners sometimes can find the best of both worlds by looking for camellia hybrids, which marry the color and form of the Japanese camellias with the hardiness and fragrance of the tea plant camellias.

Pruning

Slow-growing tea plant needs very little pruning, and only then to keep its bowl-shaped canopy. Use a clean, sterile garden shear to trim away dead or damaged branches, and to let light shine on the interior of the plant. Prune after flowering if you wish to keep the plant small.

Propagating Tea Plant

Tea plants are best propagated with cuttings. Select soft-wood cuttings from the top of branches, finding the exact spot to cut where it turns from green to brown; cut at an angle above the first leaf of the brown section using that same clean, sterile gardening shear. Pinch away the first leaf and any buds. Dip stems in rooting hormone, and plant in a mixture of 1/2 sand, 1/2 potting mixture. Gently water, then pour yourself a pot of tea. Tea plant germination can take months; patience is a virtue!

Potting and Repotting Tea Plant

Growing tea plants in containers is easy to do and allows Northern gardeners to enjoy this lovely plant. Choose a pot that can hold 3-5 gallons of well-draining, acidic potting mix, with adequate drainage holes, and sit on an unglazed dish to make sure it never sits in water. It should be twice as large as your plant's root ball. Fill the bottom with gravel, stones, or pottery shards, then add your soil mix and carefully introduce your plant. Once potted, water weekly and fertilize with a diluted liquid fertilizer to keep root burn at bay.

Overwintering

If your tea plants are in-ground and staying outside for the winter, give the base of the plant a blanket of mulch or moss for insulation in the colder months.

Common Pests and Diseases

Aphids can be a bothersome problem for tea plants, but they can be washed away with a blast of water or organic neem oil. Camellia canker is a fungal disease that may strike your plant. If so, you can prune it to remove diseased branches and promote air circulation, then spray fungicide near formerly affected areas.

Tea plant leaves being harvested by hand
The Spruce / K. Dave
Article Sources
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  1. Camellia Sinensis. Missouri Botanical Garden