We arrived in Charleston on March 13 and the day after visited our first attraction, Charleston Tea Plantation. I had wanted to see this tea farm for some years. Mark asked me when I first learned about it, but I couldn’t remember for sure. I have always been interested in researching places to visit around the U.S. and a fan of attractions where things are grown and processed. Mark and I really enjoy drinking tea and learning about it. Mark taught some tea classes at Modesto Junior College Adult Education – a three night course spaced once a week. For awhile, he collected different kinds of tea ware. Our first visit to a tea production facility was at Celestial Seasonings in Boulder, Colorado. Although they don’t grow tea there, you can tour the processing and packaging plant. The mint room was the most interesting – they warn you before you enter as it really opens your sinuses with the intense smell! We relaxed in their tea tasting room where we could sample many varieties. It was a cold, overcast fall day when we visited and I can still remember sitting around the inviting room drinking cups of hot tea and admiring the Celestial Seasoning art on the walls.
So it seemed only fitting that our first place to visit was the tea plantation which is actually located on Wadmallaw Island outside of Charleston. The drive to get there is a scenic byway along a tree shaded country road with lovely small churches, homes and farms. The plantation is also quite beautiful with fields of green tea bushes and huge live oaks with Spanish moss (above). Below a close up picture of tea bushes.
Tea plants were imported from China in the late 1700’s to South Carolina, but in the next 150 years, propagating and producing tea was unsuccessful. In 1888, a Dr. Shepard founded a tea plantation in Summerville, South Carolina where he was able to produce tea until his death in 1915. His plantation closed and the tea plants grew wild for the next 45 years. In 1963, an experimental tea farm was begun on a former potato plantation with tea plants from Dr. Shepard’s former plantation. In 1987, Mr. Hall, a tea expert purchased the property and the Charleston Tea Plantation was founded. His tea company became known as “American Classic” and was the first to have 100% American grown tea. In 2003, Bigelow Tea Company a well known tea brand in many stores bought the property in partnership with Mr. Hall.
This part of South Carolina is perfect for tea growing due to the sandy soil, hot, humid climate and abundant rainfall. I really enjoyed walking in the tea fields, checking out the plants. In the picture above, I am standing in the experimental field which has the original and oldest tea plants on the farm that came from Dr. Shepard’s 1888 farm. Although the tea bushes come from just one type of plant – Camellia Sinensis, there are many variations.
There is a trolley that takes visitors around the plantation to see the fields with a guide explaining history, plant care and harvesting. We also stopped at the greenhouse to view the tea plants that are being propagated and prepared for planting. We learned from our guide that no pesticides or herbicides are used on the plants which are naturally pest free. We were told that tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world. We were asked what we thought the first beverage was. I answered “coffee” but actually it is water. Makes sense, but I guess I wasn’t thinking of water as a beverage, ha, ha.
We visited the farm before harvest time which usually begins between April and May. That is when the tea bushes have produced the first new leaves called “first flush,” considered the best for tea making. The leaves are harvested by a special machine called the “Green Giant Tea Harvester” which can be seen above. The bushes are planted close together and the harvester passes easily through cutting off several inches from the top and throwing the leaves into the machine. As the plants keep producing new leaves, harvesting continues every few weeks until fall when the weather cools. This one machine replaces a labor force of 500 people hand cutting tea. In most tea growing countries tea has to be hand cut because the plants are located on the sides of hills or mountains. Charleston Tea Plantation is one of the few tea farms that is on level ground. Below is a picture of me next to the plantation’s mascot, Waddy who holds a cup of plantation tea.
The plantation has a small tea processing plant with a short but informative 12 minute video tour explaining the whole process from fresh leaves to processed tea. We were able to see the machinery but there was no tea being processed due to the season. In the gift shop there is tea and tea ware for sale including delightful teapots and teacups. At a tea station we were able to sample as much tea as we wanted from six different flavors. My favorite was the mint (I am a big mint tea fan) and we bought a tin of this tea to take with us. The tea is rather costly here so we didn’t stock up, but we thought it tasted quite good.
It was a delightful and relaxing visit to this tea farm getting to see tea bushes close up and learning how they are grown and processed.
Thanks for checking in! In the next post I plan to write some more about our visit to the Gulf beaches in Northern Florida.