SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) — This is the tale of a plant the south forgot about and yet never stopped using. Sweet tea is considered a staple of southern culture, but have you ever seen it growing in a southern garden?
Did you know there’s a connection between the crushed leaves in store-bought tea bags and the evergreen leaves of winter-blooming Camelia Sinensis plants in flowerbeds across the south?
“Every tea you drink comes from Camellias and Camellia Sinensis is one of the best-growing camellias,” says Matthew Israel, the Executive Director of The American Camellia Society.
The United States is the 3rd largest importer of tea on the planet, and we have a long history of importing tea.
In fact, Americans drink more than 84 billion servings of tea a year.
So when is the last time you went with your children on a field trip to a tea farm? Do you have memories of helping your grandmother harvest leaves for making sweet tea from her Camellia Sinensis shrubs?
Tea in American history
Tea was the main source of caffeine for early American colonists, so when Britain began to heavily tax the precious cargo, colonists boycotted tea and drank coffee in protest. The Boston tea party ensued, though it is not known if the switch from tea to coffee was partially to blame for the colonists’ agitation and bursts of energy.
Bostonites were addicted to tea, particularly the caffeine in tea.
So why didn’t they just grow their own tea instead of switching to coffee when the colonists’ clearly had the ability to grow their own food?
The conditions weren’t right for Camelia Sinensis, the “tea plant,” to grow in the Boston area.
Camellia Sinensis is from southern China, where people began consuming it in 2700 B.C. We know now that it readily grows in United State growing zones seven, eight, and nine.
Texas A&M University explains that the British wanted to establish tea production in the American south, sending Camellia sinensis seeds to Trust Garden in Savannah in 1744. But the seeds did not grow, so in 1772, plants were sent to Georgia and were recorded as still growing on Skidaway Island near Savannah in 1805.
Is sweet tea native to the United States?
Unsuccessful attempts in Charleston and near Bellville, Texas were later discouraging for a potential southern tea market, but things would soon change.
In time, the American south would become known for its sweet tea because of the Lipton Tea Company — which still operates successfully near Charleston.
Wait—we can grow sweet tea in the south?
Despite the slow start at launching a successful tea farm in the country, Camellia sinensis has the ability to thrive in the south–so much, so that growing zones seven, eight, and nine in the southern United States are sometimes referred to as “the Camelia Belt.”
Many major tea companies operating today leave the name Camellia Sinensis off of packaging labels, instead describing the leaves of the plant with more exotic-sounding names like orange pekoe, pekoe, or pekoe cut black tea.
“I’ve noticed that they don’t write the name camellia on their boxes,” says Israel.
But a tiny bit of research proves Orange Pekoe is a grade of black-leaf tea made from the Camellia Sinensis plant. And a little more research will show how few tea farms are in operation in the United States, particularly in the Camellia Belt.
Knowing the difference between types of Camellias
Ornamental Camellia flowers are commonly seen blooming politely throughout the south during the winter months, but only the leaves of Camellia sinensis can be used to make sweet tea.
With over 200 species, Camellias are as different from one another as siblings in any other family.
Camellia sasanqua shows off with an array of blooms in mid-fall and early winter, then Camellia japonica steps in to become the center of attention from mid-winter until early spring.
Camellia flowers, which can be mistaken as roses from afar, deliver a punch of color in the dreary months with shades of white, pink, red, lavender, and yellow.
Candy-striped Camellia flowers, including Camellia japonica varieties with large blooms that look like peppermints, will literally decorate your house for the Christmas season once you’ve planted them as the main shrubbery in your flowerbeds.
But it is Camellia sinensis, with humble and small white flowers, that provides leaves for green, white, black, and oolong tea. This plant is no beauty queen compared to the strictly ornamental varieties of camellias, but Camellia sinensis is a smart plant purchase for those who like their landscaping plants to also be of good use in the kitchen.