Tag Archives: Camellia sinensis

Time for tea

“Oh,” said Mark as he went to empty the food scraps into the black compost bin. “A tea maiden.” I was picking the finest, youngest leaves off the tea camellia. At least I know to pick only the tender leaves. I may have learned this from advertisements long ago, claiming superior status for some brands on account of only picking the youngest, most tender leaves. I am guessing the cheaper, dustier teas are from the tougher leaves further down the stem.

The leaves will be left to oxidise and lightly ferment for a couple of days before drying

Preparing the tea is still a learning process here. Last year’s harvest was a bit bland, to be honest, so was mostly used up making kombucha because it didn’t rival our preferred French Earl Grey tea. I shall try fermenting this batch a little longer than just overnight to see if that deepens the flavour. Maybe two or three days before I start the drying process.

The ratio of aromatics to tea may be a little high but I will see when they have dried.

And I am upping the additional flavourings component because we like aromatic teas. It will be citrus and rose scented – using tender leaves of the lemon myrtle (Backhousia citriodora), orange blossom (the orange trees are still in flower here), the grated zest of an orange and the most scented rose petals I could find.

I planted out three more tea camellias (Camellia sinensis) this year but they are still small. It takes a whole lot of leaves to get any volume of dried tea so I doubt we will ever reach self sufficiency in tea but it is fun to try, in a homestead-y sort of fun way. You do need one of the proper tea camellia varieties, not just any old camellia and I have no idea how readily available they are on the market these days.

That is the one large tea bush outlined in red. The foliage is different to most camellias.

I quote again the Wikipedia article in answer to the question as to whether there are different camellias for different teas: “Camellia sinensis and its subspecies, Camellia sinensis var. assamica, are two major varieties grown today. White tea, yellow tea, green tea, oolong, pu-erh tea and black tea are all harvested from one or the other, but are processed differently to attain varying levels of oxidation.” There are different selections of the species and some will have different characteristics, but the vast majority of tea sold in the world is indeed from Camellia sinensis.

The modest tea harvest

Camellia sinensis, the tea camellia, flowering at the end of March

With just one sizeable bush of the tea camellia, C. sinensis, the harvest was never going to be huge but after fiddly-faddling with a few minor efforts in recent years, I was determined to get as much as I could this year. I now have considerable respect for the tea-pickers of Sri Lanka and India but I assume one gets faster with practice. Mark tells me he has another three plants ready to be put out into the garden so we should, with more attention, be able to increase the harvest, though we are unlikely to achieve self sufficiency.

The first, small pick of tender tea tips

Harvesting is picking just the top two or sometimes three leaves from each growing tip, just as they are unfurling and still very soft and young.

The tea bag has a lot to answer for in terms of reducing the drinking of tea to the most convenient but mundane and utility level of activity. Where is the romance? Let alone the quality? Even worse are the gourmet tea bags which appear to be packaged in individual nylon bags and are therefore non-biodegradable, whatever the packet says. As our lives have become more leisured here at Tikorangi, we reinstated the old ways of making good loose-leaf tea in a teapot for the afternoon cup. Sometimes I bring T2 loose leaf tea back with me from Australia but we also have a New Zealand mailorder supplier at Tea Total and I have come to conclusion I prefer their teas. It is not as cheap as supermarket tea but for the afternoon ritual, we think the better quality and flavour is worth every cent.

Spreading on a flat tray to lightly oxidise and dry

My home-grown tea is free. Because we like aromatic teas, I have flavoured three batches differently. The first is lemon scented – I added some of the young leaves of the lemon myrtle – Backhousia citriodora. The second batch I dried with orange blossom (proper orange, not the mock orange philadelphus) and a few fine peelings of the outer rind of an orange and rose petals. The third was lime (lime blossoms and few young leaves) with mint and rose petals.

The yield from a tray is not large once it has dried – but fresh and aromatic

We tried making straight green tea in the past, first from fresh leaves straight into the pot and the then with leaves just wilted and left overnight. The taste was perhaps just a little too subtle for our palates. Now I do a process somewhere between green and black tea – bruising the leaves and leaving them covered overnight (which starts the oxidation process). Then I sun dry them on flat tray – which can take from one to three days, depending on the strength of the sun. And voila! Fresh tea ready for the pot. With no packaging and no carbon footprint.

In answer to the question as to whether there are different camellias for different teas, I quote Wikipedia: “Camellia sinensis and its subspecies, Camellia sinensis var. assamica, are two major varieties grown today. White tea, yellow tea, green tea, oolong, pu-erh tea and black tea are all harvested from one or the other, but are processed differently to attain varying levels of oxidation.” There are different selections of the species and some will have different characteristics, but the vast majority of tea sold in the world is indeed from Camellia sinensis.

Our form of sinensis is pink flowered which is unusual. But I think I strategically placed additional flowers to make this photo showier than it is in real life.

Camellia stars

China (4)

Camellia heartland in Dali with cultural performances. The dancing girls are holding oversized camellias

It is looking as if this is to be the year of the camellia for us. We went to China in February, to join the International Camellia Society’s biennial congress and it has been non-stop camellias since.

Camellia High Fragrance  (photo by Tony Barnes)

Camellia High Fragrance (photo by Tony Barnes)

While the congress in Dali was wall to wall reticulatas (more on these in my August NZ Gardener column), one New Zealand cultivar has made inroads to the heady world of Chinese camellias where they otherwise show complete loyalty to their own. The late Jim Findlay from Whangarei spent many years working on scented camellias and it would not be exaggerating to say that his ‘High Fragrance’ is a sensation in China – regarded with reverence, even. It is a shame Jim is not still around to enjoy the accolades and honour from the home of camellias.

Dali prides itself on being camellia heartland.  Even aside from the colourful displays and ceremonies associated with hosting what was seen as a highly prestigious congress, it was clear that the camellia is a cultural icon unmatched by anything I can think of in New Zealand, except perhaps rugby. It was celebrated in song, dance, art, branding, decoration and, above all else, in plants by the thousand, nay, tens of thousands, grown in containers and displayed everywhere.

Pink form of C. sinensis

Pink form of C. sinensis

Travelling across hemispheres, we arrived home in early March to find our earliest camellias already in bloom. C. sinensis is the proper tea camellia and one form we have has the daintiest and earliest little pink blooms. It is, of course, primarily grown for its young foliage which we sometimes harvest for the freshest green tea experience possible. Lightly crushing the leaves and leaving them to ferment overnight in a warm place gives a stronger flavour, reminiscent even of our favoured Earl Grey. Inspired by our Chinese experience, I am determined to be more organised and consistent in harvesting the foliage in spring this year though we are not going to reach self sufficiency.

Camellia brevistyla

Camellia brevistyla

The other very early bloomer for us is Camellia brevistyla, with its dainty white flowers. It is a bit ephemeral with its flowering season (the extremely similar C. microphylla lasts longer) but its small leafed, compact form lends it to clipping so we are happy to let it keep its little space in the garden.
sasanqua camellias (2)

Sasanqua camellias in autumn

By mid May and into June, it is the sasanqua camellias that take centre stage as the dominant flowering shrubs in the garden. Most of the sasanqua species originated in Japan and in the camellia heydays through to the early 1990s, they were often seen as the utility relative – good for hedging and sun tolerant but lacking the substance and flower form that were prized in the japonicas and hybrids. Fashions change with time and these days I really like the softer flower form and the smaller foliage which is usually a good dark green colour and ideal for clipping and shaping. Also, the early bloomers of the season lift the spirits on grey days of late autumn going into winter.

Camellia petal blight

Camellia petal blight

The other huge bonus of the sasanquas  is that they do not get petal blight which has cut the display of later flowering types. The ravages of petal blight (technically Ciborinia camelliae) have been a huge disappointment to us and pretty much stopped the inter-generational Jury camellia breeding programme in mid stride. It was particularly interesting in China to see blight and discuss it with professionals from other countries. Australia is still free from it (a good argument for tight border control), but Asia, Europe and the USA are all afflicted.

I spoke to an Italian researcher who gave hope. They have found a biological cure (another fungus, in fact) which is working well in laboratory conditions but not yet in the field (or garden). Maybe over time, there is light at the end of the blighted tunnel. In the meantime, what struck us was that while we saw it through the areas of China we visited and discussed it with Europeans, it was nowhere near as bad as we get here at home. Mark ruefully commented that maybe we have the worst blight in the world. While our coastal Taranaki winters are mild and we get bright sun, we also get a lot of rain and high humidity – optimum conditions for anything fungal, really. China was dry. Maybe gardeners in dry parts of New Zealand like Hawkes Bay and Central Otago are correspondingly less affected?

Camellias continue to play a valued role in our garden but the nature of that role has changed in response to  wretched blight.

IMG_2845First published in the June issue of NZ Gardener and reprinted here with their permission. 
China (3)

Flowers from an early autumn Easter weekend

???????????????????????????????It is indubitably autumnal, but no sign of the leaves colouring or dropping yet as we gently drift into the cooler seasons. I shall do a survey of the plants that take us through autumn, I thought, and headed out to the garden with snips and a basket.

We love flowers – lots of flowers. Simple blooms, common varieties, oddities and curiosities, anything and most things (though not everything) across the colour spectrum. Some gardeners, presumably of more refined sensibilities, prefer to be restrained and to preach the value of form and foliage. We are happy to value form and foliage but we want the added appeal of flowery fluff softening the austerity.

???????????????????????????????Despite that slight sense of mournful decay that can characterise the autumnal garden, there was so much flying the flag for flowers that I had to group them. It is still early for the autumn bulbs. There is a whole lot more to come but the nine in bloom at least indicate that not all bulbs belong to spring. Starting with the white flower at the top of the photo, going clockwise, these are: Crinum moorei, belladonna, Colchicum autumnale, one of the autumn crocus (could be C. serotinus), Moraea polystachya which is an unsung star amongst the autumn bulbs, Cyclamen hederafolium both pink and white, the dainty little Leucojum autumnale, the earliest of the oxalis (hirta, luteola, massoniana and lobata) and the first of the nerines that will become the rockery stars over the next few weeks.
???????????????????????????????Climbers can be a little bothersome to place. Too many are strangling, invasive things, smothering their host as they scramble to the top, or, like the Rhodochiton atrosanguineus, seeding down in perpetuity. Others are such retiring little dainties that they can be difficult to keep going. Flowering for us at the moment are the bougainvillea (very much in the rampant camp) and one of the more garden-friendly jasmines at the top but we have lost track of which one it is. It has good fragrance, flowers pretty much all the time and is strong growing – bordering on rampant – but not as aggressive as the weedy jasmines. It is planted on the corner of the bedroom once inhabited by our daughter of the same name. Immediately below, the purple flower like a mini streptocarpus is on a soft vine, but its name escapes us at the moment. Well, I have never known it and Mark thinks he raised it from commercial seed but has yet to recall what it is. To the right are the lapagerias – Chilean bell flowers – with their wonderfully long blooming season and obliging habits. Sure it can take several – many, even – years to get a vine established but once there, these are rewarding plants for the shaded side of the house.
???????????????????????????????The flowering shrubs and trees are not so numerous at this time of the year. Top row left, we have Radermachera sinica (more on this below), Hydrangea Immaculata which is still at peak rather than that fading over to dusky spent flowerheads, next row down is the fragrant osmanthus (though not sure which one) and the so-called African butter knife plant or Cunonia capensis. Then comes the white flowered tibouchina which seeds down far too freely here but does compensate by flowering pretty much all the time in semi woodland conditions. Fuchsias are not a strong point for us, but the one on the left has been here forever it seems, surviving even falling over, splitting apart and drought. The one on the right is the attractive but dangerously weedy Fuchsia boliviana. Second row from the bottom is a sampling of vireya rhododendrons – have enough of these around the place and there are always some in flower, 52 weeks of the year. In the bottom row are the first of the evergreen azaleas embarking on their marathon blooming from early autumn right through to mid spring and the first camellia.
???????????????????????????????Camellia sinensis will no doubt be of interest to some. It is always the first to flower though with such insignificant blooms that they are easy to miss. This is the tea camellia, and yes, sometimes we do harvest the young leaves to make green tea. White flowered tea camellias are more common and we have a plant somewhere – in the “plant out” area, I think, waiting to get out of its pot.
???????????????????????????????I was pretty thrilled by the Radermachera sinica when Mark alerted me to it in bloom. It has a divine and heady fragrance. The trouble is that it is sub tropical to tropical so treated as a house plant in the temperate world. But it is a tree and ours is shooting skywards. Besides, we don’t do houseplants so we are yet to decide what to do with this plant besides enjoying its current flowering.
???????????????????????????????Finally there are the perennials and annuals still in full bloom. In brief in the yellow tones, we start with a damn big yellow salvia at the base and head around clockwise: kniphofia species, one of the gesneriad family whose name we have currently forgotten but which makes an excellent woodland plant, datura, dahlias, simple little autumn zinnias (none of the over-bred, bushy, compact, modern hybrid bedding plants), a handy yellow ground cover which flowers for a very long time and whose name will come back to us at some point, Hibiscus trionum and the common wildflower oenothera which is remarkably rewarding when it comes to blooming on and on.
???????????????????????????????In the pinks and whites, we start at the top with the under-sung white plumes of Actaea racemosa (syn Cimcifuga racemosa) whose fairy candles light up a woodland area, a simple dahlia seedling, the annual Amaranthus caudatus which is self sown, the lovely wind anemones, assorted daisies, streptocarpus (bit of one-upmanship here – we use these as permanent bedding plants in frost-free locations), one of the saponarias, a really old, self-maintaining strain of impatiens that has naturalised in our woodland, a self-seeded abutilon which should have been amongst the shrubs and some rather large and resilient begonias.

While others may find that buxus balls and refined plantings soothe their souls and give order to their lives, we like vibrancy to gladden our hearts. Besides, with flowers we get butterflies, bees and birds to enrich the scene further and we take delight in gardening to sustain a lively eco-system. That said, I gathered these flowers across a few acres, not from a few square metres in a back garden. I might feel differently with a more limited area. In the current situation, I can satisfy any need for more restrained style indoors.

Postscript: Many of these plants have more detailed articles from earlier writing. Rather than clutter up the post with multiple links, if you want to know more about most, type the plant name in the search engine box on the right of the screen.

Plant Collector – Camellia sinensis

Grown to harvest for tea, rather than its floral display - Camellia sinensis

Grown to harvest for tea, rather than its floral display - Camellia sinensis

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.