America’s Only Tea Plantation
Last month I vacationed in South Carolina and visited an American Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island. It was a brilliant visit. My family joined, and all agreed, it was one of the highlights of our trip.
After leaving Charleston, we approached the Charleston Tea Plantation, on tree lined roads dripping with Spanish moss. I felt as though we were entering some bygone time and era. An unassuming plantation gateway leads to a welcome centre lined with rocking chairs, an abundance of butterflies, and absolute quiet.
The entrance led us to the gift shop (of course) for some iced tea (delicious!) and to browse tea gifts before we walked through the factory area. TV screens explained how the machines process the tea, taking only 20 hours from bush to finish!
A withering bed removes 12% moisture from the fresh leaves. A rotovane machine tears and ruptures the tea leaf exposing millions of cells to the air and starting the enzymatic process. The oxidations process now begins.
Black tea is oxidized for only 50 minutes and oolong for 15 minutes. Green tea is lightly steamed and dried only, with no oxidation occurring. Each batch of tea leaves dries for 25 minutes, sealing in each type of tea properties.
Finally, all the teas are graded, removing any unwanted stalks, or off bits. That completes the miracle process, which is all done by one man!
Next, the trolley bus took us out onto the plantation of 127 acres. All the 150,000 bushes are Camelia sinensis varietals, which originated in China and India. The heat, humidity, well-drained sandy soil, and 75 days of rainfall provide ideal growing conditions from April through September. Spring sees the first flush of leaves, and harvest begins with 3-5 inches of new growth. Every bush will yield 7 to 10 cutting each season, with new growth taking from 14-20 days depending on weather conditions.
The plantation has a custom-designed harvester called the “Green Giant.” This machine and one man can harvest fields, which would take 500 manual workers to pick.
Cuttings are taken from selected varieties, which take 6-12 months to develop mature roots. After planting, it will take up to 4 years to mature. No pesticides are ever used in the plantation, and the plants all looked so healthy and well cared for!
Tea on the Front Porch
After the trolley ride, we sat on the porch and chatted with Bill Fernandez, founder of the plantation and a 3rd generation tea taster! He has 42 years of experience in the tea industry and is one of only 28 professionals in the USA.
We really started to connect when discovering his grandfather was from Yorkshire. After that, his Canadian/American accent with hints of time spent in London soon reverted to those roots, and we had a blast! Needless to say, he drinks only the freshest tea.
It was very special to see Camellia sinensis growing, to see and touch tea leaves. In short, I may never get the chance to visit China, India, or Sri Lanka, so this experience will always remain with me and add another special dimension to my personal tea journey.
In conclusion, I hope you enjoyed this whistle-stop tour through the Charleston Tea Plantation. Moreover, I hope you too will visit and celebrate this most amazing of local treasures.