Tea Plant Profile

Tea Plant, Camellia Sinensis

Courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden PlantFinder

 

The moniker "camellia" conjures up something feminine, floral, and beautiful. Did you know that the genus name actually comes from a Jesuit missionary named Georg Camel? What an honor to have a plant as significant to our gardens and kitchens as the camellia named after you, which includes the species that yields tea leaves for fragrant drinks. In spite of the fact that the majority of commercially grown tea is cultivated in Asia, gardeners all over the world grow the tea plant for its ornamental appeal. Whether or not you have a taste for tea, you can grow this autumn blooming shrub in your garden where it proves to be hardy. The glossy foliage, white blooms, and long-lived nature are an attribute in the perennial flower garden.

Botanical Name Camellia sinensis
Common Name Tea plant, tea tree, tea camellia
Plant Type Evergreen shrub
Mature Size 6 to 15 feet
Sun Exposure Partial shade
Soil Type Rich, well-drained, moist
Soil pH Acidic; pH 5.5-6.5
Bloom Time October to December
Flower Color White
Hardiness Zones USDA growing zones 6-9
Native Area China
Tea Plant Leaves
 Courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden PlantFinder
Grow Fresh Tea Leaves
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Camellia Sinensis in bloom
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How to Grow Tea Plants

Camellias rival other perennials like peonies for longevity when properly cared for. In fact, some camellias may live for hundreds of years. Getting a good start is essential, which means planting right at soil level. A spot sheltered from drying winds and excessive sun will help foliage stay glossy and lush. A sheltered spot in an elevated spot in the landscape is even more important where tea plants push the boundaries of their growing zone, for it's very disappointing to lose a mature tea plant due to one unusually harsh winter. In zone 6, planting camellias on the south side of a hill protects them from freezing temperatures that pool in depressions.

Light

Tea plants need partial sun to get the energy to produce blooms, but not so much light that the leaves are scorched. Partial sun is the best lighting for tea plants. Full morning sun exposure with afternoon shade cast by a building is fine; dappled shade from tree cover is even better.

Soil

High quality soil is part of the requirement for longevity with a tea plant. Rich, yet sandy and well draining loam is important. Camellias need acidic soil, and without it their leaves will turn yellow.

Water

Tea plants are not drought tolerant, but nor do they like boggy conditions. Root rot can occur in soils characterized by wet clay.

Temperature and Humidity

Tea plants can tolerate hot summers given adequate shade. Excess humidity combined with heavy soils can cause fungal diseases. Give adequate spacing to these plants to encourage air circulation in humid areas.

Fertilizer

Tea plants are light feeders. A yearly application of slow-release all purpose fertilizer in the spring will help the plants prepare for blooming.

Potting and Repotting

Pot up your tea plant camellia with a potting mix made for azaleas, if available. It will have the consistency and acidity to help your tea plant thrive. Tea plants grow slowly so therefore only need to be repotted every few years when the soil is depleted.

Propagating Tea Plant

You can propagate tea plants by air layering in the spring. Choose a 12-inch end of a healthy branch, and rough up the bark with a knife. Cover the exposed bark with a handful of damp sphagnum moss, held in place with plastic wrap. Wrap the plastic wrap in foil, and hold in place with ties. Roots should form by fall, at which time you can cut off the new plant and install it in the garden.

Pruning

The tea plant is slow growing, and needs little pruning to keep its shape. Remove dead or weak branches from the plant's interior to help air and sunlight reach the plant. If you wish to keep plants small, tip prune after flowering.

Harvesting

In the spring, pluck the outermost two leaves from branch tips, along with the leaf buds. Dry these in the sun, or in a 200 degree Fahrenheit oven for 10 minutes. Store dried leaves in an airtight jar. You can add tea plant flowers to your cup of tea as well.

Harvested tea leaves
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Growing in Containers

Growing the tea plant in containers allows gardeners in Northern growing zones to enjoy the Camellia sinensis. Choose a container that holds three to five gallons of potting mix. Make sure the container has a good drainage hole, and don't set the container on a dish that traps water. Fertilize the plants with a diluted liquid fertilizer to prevent burning the roots.

Growing From Seeds

Camellia plants don't come true from seed, but you can plant them and see what comes of your chance seedling. Take seeds from ripe capsules after blooming. Soak seed overnight to enhance germination. Plant in moist sandy loam. Germination can take from one to three months.

Common Pests/Diseases

Aphids may bother tea plants in the spring. Wash them away with a blast of water. Camellia canker is a fungal disease that is a problem in the humid Southeast. Prune to promote air circulation, remove diseased plant parts, and spray fungicide if necessary to preserve the plant.

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.

Camellia Japonica
Japanese Camellia. hsvrs/Getty Images