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Brew-your-own

Camellia sinensis: not the most eyecatching of plants, until you pick those shoot tips and stick them in some boiling water...

Plonk a bit of almost any herb out of the garden in a mug of boiling water and you’ve got a herbal tea. I’ve tried mint, rosemary, chamomile (an acquired taste) and lemon verbena: all refreshing, virtuously cleansing and with pleasingly beneficial effects on various bits of your anatomy.

But what if you want to grow a proper cuppa?

As we probably all know by now, thanks to decades of PG Tips adverts, tea is made from the new growth of the camellia bush (Camellia sinensis). This is not to be confused with the garden camellia which flowers spectacularly in early spring: this is usually C. japonica and occasionally C. sasanqua, beautiful things but if you try to boil their shoot tips I hate to think what you might do to yourself.

And C. sinensis is the reason why tea is mainly grown in India and Sri Lanka and other hot and steamy places. It likes even temperatures all year round; wet summers, and dry, cold winters. Almost exactly the conditions which the UK cannot provide.

Or at least: until recently. Global warming and climate change may have many, many downsides: but one of the silver linings is that it makes it just about possible, in some parts of the country, to grow your own tea, outdoors.

One garden in Cornwall is doing just that, and very successfully too. Tregothnan, near Truro, is one of just two commercial English tea producers (the other is in Pembrokeshire, Wales) and its home-grown cuppas are  now sold all over the world, including India and China: the words ‘Newcastle’ and ‘coal’ spring to mind.

It’s catching on, too. Tregothnan is now advising would-be tea plantations in Aberdeen, Yorkshire and Lancashire, so all you flinty Northern types with fingers quivering scornfully over the little ‘x’ in the corner in the assumption that this only applies to softy southerners – you too can brew your own.

If you’re growing outdoors, you probably do need to live in a warmer bit of the country: C. sinensis puts up with a bit of cold, but nothing much below about -5°C. That’s the south-west (and I do mean very south-west: I’d be struggling in Somerset), plus microclimates like the Isle of Wight, west coast of Scotland, and the steamy urban heat of the big cities. You’ll also need an acid soil and pretty damp weather and a sheltered spot to keep leaves from scorching in the sun and to ward off the worst of the winter rains.

But only about two percent of us live in exactly those conditions, so never mind all that. We gardeners are always up for a challenge, and this one is a doddle compared with, say, creating a Mexican lowland tropic (chilli peppers) or Mediterranean scrubland (olives).

Even if you live in the frozen wastes of Northumberland, say, or freezing and drought-stricken Norfolk (blimey they must get through some warming cuppas there) you can grow C. sinensis as an attractive container shrub.

Well, attractive might be overstating it a bit, as it’s not the most prepossessing of pot plants: it has small and single cream-coloured flowers, pretty enough but not a patch on its showy Japanese cousins. And it spends most of its year just being green. But never mind, it’s not as if we’re growing it for its flowers: the important thing is, it’s really quite easy to grow. Simply move it outside onto the patio for summer and water well, then bring it indoors (a cool greenhouse is fine) and let it dry out in winter.

It’s a slow-growing shrub, so you’ll need patience: the first tips are ready when it’s about 60cm tall, after five or six years. After that you’ll need to dry the tips before you can use them, just like regular leaf tea. You won’t be challenging Typhoo any time soon, but just the sheer satisfaction of brewing your own zero-airmiles cuppa is going to take a lot of beating.

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