Tag Archives: tea camellia

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.

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.