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Tea blossoms | New World Seeds & Tubers

Tea comes from the tea-camellia, Camelia sinensis. Like most Camellias, it blooms “off-season”–in this case, in autumn. One of my plants is in full bloom right now.

The blossoms are sometimes described as “fragrant”, and it seems like a white flowered, autumn-blooming Camellia SHOULD be fragrant, as is common among many late-blooming things especially if they have white or green flowers, but I can’t detect any. That doesn’t mean they aren’t; they might be faintly so, perhaps more so in a warmer climate than mine. I wouldn’t be surprised if wild plants had more fragrant blossoms than my domesticated specimen. I have another one that is a seedling from a coarser plant closer to a wild Tea Camellia.

Camellia oleifera is reputedly slightly more fragrant, but this is hearsay to me as I don’t have it. I think I might like to, though, because it’s roughly the most coldhardy Camellia in existence, and it’s been used to breed more coldhardy hybrid Camellias.

C. oleifera is the other useful Camellia in terms of food: an oil is extracted from the seed, hence the specific name “oleifera” (oil-bearing). I’ve been advised that oil could also be extracted from the seeds of C. sinensis, making it doubly useful.

Tea oil is edible and over 80% monounsaturated. It’s also been used as a lubricant and a protective coating on tools to reduce corrosion. Camellias grow very slowly but they’re more reliably coldhardy than olives are. Is this a practical crop? I don’t know, but if it’s considered such in China, it might have a place in the southeastern USA. I can grow them here but productivity would be rather modest. If I were harvesting both tea and oil from the same plant, that’s not too bad of a deal.

I’ve always been interested in growing tea because I like good tea but the prices have been rising for years and the quality of what is available in the USA at least declining. Now I feel more of a pressure to grow tea because Japanese green tea has been impacted by the radiation from the Fukushima catastrophe:

Earlier this month, Japan’s government banned green tea from parts of three prefectures: Tochigi, Chiba and Kanagawa; and banned tea from all of a fourth prefecture, Ibaraki.

The authorities had detected levels of radioactive cesium in tea leaves above the legal limit of 500 becquerels per kilogram.

Now the discovery of radiation in fields further south in Shizuoka, Japan, some 400 kilometers away from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, threatens the most robust tea-producing region in Japan.
–CNN News

I’ve had many excellent and interesting teas in my life. Aside from non-tea ingredients, much of the differences in the base flavor and color are products of how the tea was processed.

Generally only the 3 youngest leaves on the tips of new spring shoots are used.

Black tea is fermented–sometimes I jokingly say “composted” because to tell the truth the effect is rather the same! The volume of the tea leaves shrinks dramatically and the caffeine ends up at much higher concentrations. A little black tea is OK now and then but I don’t like to drink it regularly; too much tannin and too much caffeine for me. I already have a personality that’s too peripatetic.

Oolong is partially fermented, and some oolong teas have interesting and distinct flavors.

For home production, green tea is probably your best bet.

To make green tea you need to destroy an enzyme that turns the leaves brown and degrades their quality. For Japanese-style green teas you steam the leaves for about 15-20 seconds. Chinese-style green teas are usually pan-roasted, which is why they are less green, less “vegetal”, and less bitter than Japanese green teas.

The most popular green tea in Japan is Sencha. After steaming, Sencha teas are rolled, shaped, dried, and pan-fried. Here are steps in the process:

Processing tea for Sencha

Here’s the process for matcha and gyokuro (matchstick green tea):

Notice that a few weeks before harvest, they shade the tea plants. That slows down growth, encourages the plants to produce deeper green leaves, and produces some amino acids that alter the flavor of the tea.

Next time I have a tea harvest I’ll try to work out a simple process to produce an acceptable home-processed green tea.

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3 Responses to “Tea blossoms”

  1. The UK has its own commercial tea plantation on the Tregothnan Estate in Cornwall, not that far from where I live This may be the most northerly tea plantation in the world :)

  2. Let’s rephrase that, Emma: currently the world’s most northerly tea plantation ;)

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