Tea, anyone?

I love tea, and over the years, I’ve gone beyond the usual Orange Pekoe and Earl Grey to experience more exotic types, such as Gunpowder Green and Silver Needle White.

Although I’ve read many books on how tea is produced, I’ve always thought it would be wonderful to see how tea is cultivated and produced. But since I’m not going to be in the vicinity of India or China anytime soon, it was wonderful to discover Charleston Tea Plantation, the only place in North America where tea plants are grown.

The tea garden is located a few miles south of Charleston, South Carolina on Wadmalaw Island. The farm is owned by the Bigelow family in partnership with William Barclay Hall who is a third generation tea taster. He farms 127 acres and produces tea for the American Classic Tea brand.

I began the tour in the tea factory where the leaves from 320 varieties of the Camellia sinensis plant are brought in and winnowed, then chopped and dried before being shipped out for packaging. Because tea starts out with the same leaves, the amount of processing determines whether it becomes black, oolong, or green tea.

Next, I hopped on a trolley which took us around the fields and greenhouses to see the tea plantation up close. It was a surprise to see all the bushes shaved very straight across, but John, our guide, told us that they harvest only the new growth with a specially designed tea harvester which cuts a few inches off the top of the bush.

John also explained that tea is a naturally organic crop, not requiring chemical pesticides or herbicides. But it does require a certain amount of rainfall and humidity, which Wadmalaw Island receives in abundance.

Then it was back to the gift shop for a sample cup of tea enjoyed in a rocking chair on the porch. I was more than willing to follow the advice of our guide who said: “We southerners start the day slow and then taper off the rest of the day.”

Find out more at charlestonteaplantation.com.