Despite being one of the first camellias of the season to flower, Camellia sinensis is not grown for its floral display but as a crop. It is the tea camellia. All tea comes from the same plant. Whether it is green tea, oolong tea or black tea depends not on the plant variety but on how it is dried, fermented and roasted. The preparation of quality teas takes a skill level on a par with roasting coffee or making wine. You can, however, harvest easily for home consumption, unlike wine and coffee. Green tea is unfermented and the leaves can be used fresh or dried. Oolong tea is lightly fermented (or sweated) and very lightly roasted. Further along the line is the fully fermented and roasted black tea. For the very best quality, you only pick the three leaves of fresh growth. By picking, you encourage the plant to continue pushing out fresh growth.
Camellias, as we all know, grow extremely well in New Zealand. The first attempts to grow sinensis commercially failed because of the site – cold inland valleys of Nelson. The frosts burned the desirable new growths. There is now a Taiwanese plantation near Hamilton which specialises in high quality oolong tea for the Chinese market. Most C. sinensis flower white. This form has flowers in dusky pink, but still tiny. The leaves are not like a common shiny japonica, being longer, crinkly and softer. We grow it in the vegetable garden and keep it to about 1.5m high x 1.2 m wide. Should Armageddon strike, we will have to drop coffee off the menu but we can still drink tea. I will just have to find out which bergamot is added in order to replicate our favourite Earl Grey tea.