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Growing tea in Illinois

Tea leaves spilling out of a tea cup

Grow your own tea

Did you know, you can grow the most popular drink in the world right here in Illinois? If you’re wondering how to harvest Pepsi or Coke from a tree, I’m sorry, you have the wrong drink. Second to water, tea reigns supreme as the world's favorite drink, and it has been for centuries.

Where does tea come from?

We get tea from, you guessed it the tea plant! More specifically Camellia sinensis. For those botanically minded, you may have noticed the relation to the Camellia tree. Camellia sinensis is considered a subtropical evergreen shrub originally native to the Himalayas and plains of Southern China. Hardy to zone 7B, this is a plant that in most of Illinois, will need to live indoors during the winter months.

The history of tea

Being a centuries-old beverage consumed worldwide, the history of tea is fascinating and has shaped companies, economies, and entire countries. This drink is so old, there are myths about its first use dating to 2737 BC, but the actual origin of tea is lost to history.

We do believe tea began mostly for medicinal use and evolved into the common beverage it is today. By 618 to 907 AD the consumption of tea was widespread in China. It wasn't until 1606 that tea first came to Europe. It only took less than sixty years before tea overtook beer and wine as the popular drink in Europe. Tea also saw its first tax in 1660 to help out struggling wine and beer makers.

However, despite its rapid expansion in the world, the processing of tea was a closely guarded secret by the Chinese, which created a monopoly. Many famous European botanists believed the different types of tea (green tea, oolong, etc.) were from different species of plants. It wasn't until the Chinese monopoly was broken it was discovered all these different teas came from the same plant. 

Tea spread into the Americas with European colonization. The Boston Tea Party is a famous historical event of a revolt against taxes on the favored beverage, which helped spur the American Revolutionary War. During the war tea was scarce and colonists used native American plants as substitutes. One such plant was the aptly named New Jersey Tea

Growing tea plants

But what type of tea plant should you grow? Black tea, green tea, chai, you name it, come from the same tea plant. The difference comes from how the plant is grown and how the leaves are processed.

However, throughout the historical cultivation of the tea plant, two distinct subspecies developed between India and China. India tea is scientifically named Camellia sinensis var. assamica. Commonly known as the Assam type of tea. Its use originated from the indigenous tribes of India. The other subspecies is Camellia sinensis var. sinensis. This particular tea plant was developed in China and Japan. It is also more cold-tolerant. North Carolina State University lists it as hardy to zone 6, which covers about half of central and southern Illinois. Most tea plants today are hybrids of the two subspecies.

Tea plants can be found at specialty nurseries or ordered online. Once you get your tea plant home, the best place for it to live (at least in Illinois) is going to be a large container. During the warmer months place your tea plant outside in partial shade. Full sun may be okay, but new leaves can get scorched by the summer sun. Tea can be pruned back and fit more easily into a spot inside over the winter months, but left unpruned and in a large enough container a tea plant could reach upwards of 15 to 20 feet tall.

Treat your tea plant like a typical houseplant. They can benefit from slow-release fertilizers in early spring and midway through the growing season. If you are routinely harvesting leaves it may require additional liquid fertilizer every other week.

According to University of Florida, tea can have a considerable number of pests and disease problems for those plants growing outdoors all year long. However, in Illinois tea plant pests will mostly be your typical houseplant pests such as mites, thrips, aphids, and some caterpillar species. A scale insect, named tea scale, can be particularly troublesome.

Harvesting and "fermenting" tea leaves

When harvesting from your tea plant a small amount of around a half-pound can be picked. The terminal (tip of the branch) 2 to 3 leaves are picked, including the terminal bud. From there you can make all types of tea because it all depends on how long you “ferment” the leaves. Ferment is a poor term but is the proper lingo. In reality, there is no fermenting taking place. Consider it more of a drying and curing process.

From the same plant, you can create all different types of tea from oolong to green tea or black tea. How you ferment your tea leaves depends on your preferred taste. 

The following instructions are excerpted from Tea Growing in the Florida Home Landscape by Jonathan H. Crane and Carlos F. Balerdi, University of Florida Extension.

Green tea - The leaves are not fermented at all. Only China-type tea leaves are used to produce green tea because Assam-type tea leaves produce a bitter flavor. The leaves may be steam or pan-heated. The process of pan heating of the leaves (called pan-fired tea) includes heating the leaves in a pan at 480 to 570°F (249–299°C) for 10 to 15 minutes while continuously agitating the pan to prevent burning. Subsequently, the leaves are placed in a dryer at 212 to 302°F (100–150°C) for 10 to 15 minutes, then allowed to cool, then placed in a sealable container, which may be stored in a cool, dark area. 

Oolong tea – Tea leaves are fermented for a short time. The fermenting process for producing oolong tea includes wilting freshly harvested leaves plus stems (shoots) in the sun for 30 to 60 minutes and then continuing to dry them in the shade for an additional 8 to 10 hours (stirring once an hour). Finally, the shoots are heated in a pan at 121–149°F (250–300°C) for 15 minutes, then rolled and allowed to dry.

Black tea – Leaves are fermented until they turn black. The best black tea is made from only the upper two leaves plus the terminal bud. The process of making black tea includes drying the leaves to about 55–70% moisture (this takes several hours), cutting and rolling the leaves into small pieces, then allowing the still-moist leaf pieces to ferment. Finally, the leaves are dried, sorted to remove foreign matter, and packaged.

Good Growing Fact of the Week: The British East India Company dressed a Scotsman, Robert Fortune, up in mandarin clothing to infiltrate a tea processing facility and learn the secrets of tea fermentation, breaking China’s monopoly on the tea trade. It is a fascinating tale of early industrial espionage. You can read about it in the book For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History by Sarah Rose.

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Chris Enroth is a horticulture educator with University of Illinois Extension, serving Henderson, McDonough, Knox, and Warren counties since 2012. Chris provides horticulture programming with an emphasis on the home gardener, landscape maintenance personnel, and commercial landscapers. Additional responsibilities include coordinating local county Master Gardener and Master Naturalist volunteers - providing their training, continuing education, advanced training, seasonal events, and organizing community outreach programs for horticulture and conservation assistance/education. In his spare time, Chris enjoys the outdoors, lounging in the garden among the flowers (weeds to most).