Camellia sinensis is similar to the more common ornamental varieties but with the benefit of being able to produce tea from the leaves and shoots.
The flowers are white with yellow stamens and are fragrant. The leaves are evergreen; dark green and shiny. If left unpruned it can grow to 10ft or more but they are easily pruned if a smaller shrub is required. Indeed, if you want to produce tea from the leaves it will need pruning every couple of years to keep it to 3-5ft high. See below.
In the UK, unless you live in a sheltered, warm climate, you are best to plant it up in a pot and keep it in a cool greenhouse over winter.
Propagation and Care
The most common way of propagating Camellia sinensis is by seed but cuttings also work well. Sow seeds about an inch deep in a good quality acidic seed compost with added grit or sand. Keep the compost damp and warm.
Pot on when the seedlings are large enough to handle, increasing the pot size and the months and years go on.
When buying a young shrub choose one without a central leader in order to produce a bush not a tree. Ensure that there are shoots growing out from the bottom of the plant to ensure the correct shape.
If planting outside place about 3ft apart in a sunny, sheltered position in an acidic, well drained soil. If they are grown in pots place the pots somewhere where they can get some protection from strong wind and raise the pots off the ground to allow water to drain away. Do not allow them to dry out but ensure that they don’t get waterlogged.
Fertilise regularly during the growing season with a suitable Camellia feed and prune to obtain the size and shape you require.
With the correct care and conditions camellia sinensis can live for 50-100 years.
Growing Camellia sinensis for Tea Making
There are three types of tea which can be made from Camellia sinensis; green tea, black tea and Oolong tea. Each type is produced from differently aged leaves and from using different production methods:
- The young, emerging buds, also known as Tips or Flowery Pekoe, are used for the best quality teas
- The next set of leaves are known as Orange Pekoe
- The oldest and largest leaves nearest the stem are Souchong
When your plants reach 2ft tall cut back to a few inches high to encourage new shoots and increased yield. Do this every 2-3 years to keep the vigour in the plants.
Depending on when the leaves are harvested the strength of the tea will differ; the picking of new shoots in Spring is known as First Flush. The Second Flush is the late Spring / early Summer harvesting and produces a tea with more body. The final harvest takes place in Autumn and is stronger still.
When harvesting the leaves should be gently pinched and twisted to avoid damage.
The production of the tea itself goes through several stages:
- Withering: the leaves/shoots are laid out on trays and left until the leaves loose about half of their moisture and become limp
- Rolling: the leaves are rolled to expose the plant enzymes to oxygen and begin oxidisation; the amount of time allowed for the enzymes to react with oxygen determines the type of tea produced
- Oxidisation: also known as fermentation is a highly complex procedure. The length of time given to oxidisation ranges from 45 minutes to many hours determining the colour and aroma of the final product:
- For Green Tea this process is missed out and the leaves are not allowed to oxidise. It is a green or yellow colour with a “grassy” flavour
- Oolong tea is partially oxidised; the exact time depends on personal skill and knowledge
- Black Tea is fully oxidised and produces a full-bodied brew
- Firing: firing sends a stream of hot air onto the leaves stopping the oxidisation process.
- Sorting: once dried the tea is sorted into different grades determined by size. The smallest particles are sold as Dust working up in size through Fannings and Broken Leaf to Whole Leaf