Black, green, oolong, pu-erh, and other teas are the leaves of the camellia chinensis (camellia sinensis). Camellias are grown as a garden plant with beautiful flowers, but it is this species that gave the world one of the most famous drinks. Growing tea at home is not easy – camellias are quite demanding – but if you’re up for it, two varieties are suitable – camellia sinensis var. sinensis (cultivated in China) and camellia sinensis var. assamica (cultivated in Assam, India).
How to grow tea at home
The natural environment of Camellia chinensis is the tropical and subtropical mountain forests of Indochina. On the territory of the former USSR, the climate of Krasnodar Krai and Georgia is suitable for growing camellia in the open air. You can plant camellia in a container and take it away for wintering in a cool room, where there is no risk of frosting of the root system.
The best time to plant tea seeds is winter or early spring. Only hard seeds with a dark brown color are suitable. It is very important that they are fresh, as the camellia quickly loses germination. Soak them in room temperature water for two days or in a growth stimulator (such as Epin). Seeds ready to germinate during this time will swell, the bad ones will float, there is no point in planting them. The shell of the seeds is hard, to help them sprout, gardeners often resort to scarification – slightly sawing the shell.
After preparation, you can immediately start sowing in a mixture of equal parts of turf, leaf soil, mulch and sand to a depth of 3-4 cm. Be sure to put drainage in the bottom of the pot. On top, cover it with a bag or glass – the soil should always remain slightly moist.
It will take 1 to 3 months before the first shoots appear. If they die, do not give up and stop caring for the crops – there may still be a living root system in the ground, and after some time new shoots will appear.
Tea bush from cuttings
Young shoots that have not yet had time to become woody are used for cuttings. The twigs are cut into pieces 6-8 cm long, making an oblique cut under the lower leaf. Root in a mixture of equal parts sand, leaf and peat soil. On top of the poured coarse sand layer 3-5 cm, in which and bury cuttings. A container with cuttings is covered with a bag. In about a week, roots will begin to form on the cuttings, and the bag can be removed.
Of course, not everyone will have the opportunity to get tea tree cuttings, but it is definitely easier and faster to root them, grow tea from seed.
Care of the tea tree
In a year, seedlings reach a height of 20-30 cm. Flowering is possible already at the age of one and a half years, but you will have to wait until it is 2-3 years old to collect tea leaves from your shrub.
The first transplanting is carried out when the seedlings have their first pair of true leaves (a pair of cotyledons will appear first). Too large a container should not be chosen, otherwise there is a great risk of flooding the plant. Plastic cups will also do for a start. Young camellias need to be transplanted annually, while trees over half a meter require it only once every 3 years.
When the plant reaches a height of 15-20 cm, it is pruned to stimulate branching. Camellia chinensis willingly branches and grows green mass, but for this it needs regular watering and does not interfere with nutrition. Loosening has a positive effect. There is no special need in the formation of the crown – you can keep a camellia as a tree or bush. In plantations, however, they are usually pruned to a height of about one meter for the convenience of collecting leaves.
You can place the plant in a sunny place or in the penumbra, even a northern window sill will do.
Proper overwintering is essential for the normal development and flowering of camellia chinensis. The optimum temperature during the dormancy period is 5-8 °C. Without overwintering, there will be no tragedy, but the condition of the tea tree may suffer. It can be helped by regular leaf sprays and other measures to increase humidity. Watering will be reduced, and fertilizers will not be given until spring.
From spring, watering gradually increases, with the end of the heating season, you can stop spraying the leaves. When the plant resumes growth, it will be ready for fertilization – once every 2 weeks is enough to use a universal fertilizer for houseplants, iron chelate has a good effect. Before fertilizing, you should first water the camellia with clean water. The leaves for the tea need to be harvested before the fertiliser is applied!
During the summer months, the plant develops especially well outdoors. If possible, take it out on a balcony or veranda.
Diseases and pests
Camellia chinensis is fairly resistant to disease, and pests are not particularly interested in it. Mostly it can be threatened by scabies, tea aphids and tea moths. If you keep your windowsill clean and quarantine all freshly arrived plants, you are unlikely to encounter them.
How to make green tea from camellia leaves
To obtain green tea in the spring, a leaf bud with the two nearest leaves is collected from new shoots. It is easy to distinguish new shoots from last year’s – they are still green and not woody.
Steam the harvested leaves before drying. Place the leaves in a steamer for 1-2 minutes, then immediately rinse them with cold water to stop the heat treatment and fix the green coloring.
The leaves will become soft and pliable. Roll them into rolls by hand or with a roll mats. Spread the leaves out on a baking tray and place in a preheated 100-110°C oven for 10-12 minutes. Stir them every few minutes for even cooking. When the leaves are dry and crispy, take them out – the drying process is over. You can store the brew in a glass jar or tea tin, but the main conditions are a tightly closed lid and no sunlight.
One cup of tea will require about 6 twisted leaves.
For the record
When making black, yellow and red tea (oolong), the leaves are not steamed but wilted and rolled, then dried over burning charcoal to achieve a certain degree of fermentation: minimum for yellow tea, medium for red tea, and maximum for black tea. The degree of fermentation can be judged by the color of the leaves: the darker they are, the closer they taste to black tea.