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Does Tea Grow in America?

Portrait of Robert Fortune
Robert Fortune, Scottish Botanist

Did tea ever grow in America? Yes, and it flourishes now as never before.

On July 21, 1857, Charles Mason, United State Commissioner of Patents, wrote to his seed suppliers in London to inquire about the probable cost of about ten bushels of tea seed, along with expenses that might be incurred in sending an agent for the purpose of collecting the seed in China. America was indeed interested in growing its own tea. The London seed merchants turned to the only source they knew, Robert Fortune.

Fortune, a Scottish botanist, had completed a three-year spy mission into the secretive tea- growing districts of China on behalf of the East India Company. From Canton, he had dispatched tea seedlings, notes on tea manufacture and Chinese tea workers to India as the Company began experimental tea gardens in the Himalayan foothills. Fortune agreed to do the same deed for the Americans and, on March 4, 1858, he made his fourth journey to China.

A five-acre plot in the middle of Washington was prepared for the arrival of the tea plants. Heated greenhouses had been constructed to nurture the seedlings in this official Government Experimental and Propagating Garden located on Missouri Avenue at Sixth Street. Fortune left Shanghai in early March 1859 after writing a letter to Washington proudly telling the Patent Office that he had, a few months prior, sent enough seeds to produce 32,000 tea plants, “enough to rend the plant common in every garden in America.”

However, Fortune’s trip to Washington to oversee the experiment was abruptly called off by the Americans who reckoned they could propagate the plants now that they were growing in Washington soil. It appears that, due to changing leadership, the Patent Office and the new Department of Agriculture had developed no real methodology for organized tea plantings. Many of Fortune’s plants seem to have been dispatched by congressmen to their constituents back home in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida, as indicated in this 1865 letter from James H. Rion of Winnsboro, South Carolina:

“In the fall of 1859, I received from the Patent Office, Washington, a very tiny tea-plant, which I placed in my flower-garden as a curiosity. It has grown well, has always been free from any disease, has had full out-door exposure, and attained a height of 5 feet, 8 inches There cannot be the least doubt but that the tea-plant will flourish in South Carolina.”

The outbreak of the Civil War put America’s tea-growing experiment on hold for two decades until, in 1883, the Department of Agriculture invested $10,000 to begin the Pinehurst Experimental Tea Station near Summerville, South Carolina. The farm imported seeds from China, India and Japan. After seven years, the experiment eventually lost its funding, and Dr. Charles Shepard purchased 100 acres of tea plants to begin his own tea farm in Summerville, SC.

Dr. Shepard secured low-cost labor by constructing a schoolhouse on his plantation where local African-American residents were invited to send their children to school for free while they earned money for food and clothing by picking tea. Shepard’s tea won the Best Oolong prize at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Although his tea eventually fetched a price of $1 per pound, the garden could never compete with low-cost foreign-produced tea and, with his death in 1912, the Pinehurst Tea Farm closed. Descendants of those abandoned bushes grow wild in Summerville today.

Mechanical tea harvester at Charleston Tea Garden
Mechanical tea harvester at Charleston Tea Garden

By the late 1950s, Lipton Tea Company became interested in growing tea in America. Cuttings and bushes were transferred from the abandoned Summerville farm to Lipton’s 127 acres on Wadmalaw Island, south of Charleston, in 1963. That farm eventually became the Charleston Tea Plantation, owned today by R. C. Bigelow Company and managed by longtime tea grower William (Bill) Hall. The garden’s long flat rows of tea bushes are mechanically-harvested, and the tea leaves are manufactured and packaged as American Classic Tea. Open to the public, the plantation is the largest commercial tea garden in America.

Eva Lee Hawaii Tea Garden
Eva Lee grows tea in the rain forest on the Big Island of Hawaii

Small plots of tea are now popping up across America. I was one of six judges for the first Teas of the United States competition, held in Hawaii in November 2015.

80 teas from numerous gardens were tasted and prizes awarded for outstanding handmade teas crafted by a new generation of eager tea farmers. These teas command exceptionally high prices in tea shops from London to New York.

Bruce Richardson Profile Picture

Bruce Richardson

MSN calls Bruce Richardson "A leading tea expert involved in tea's American renaissance for over 30 years." The native Kentuckian is a writer, photographer, tea blender, and frequent guest speaker at tea events across the globe. He can often be found appearing on television and radio talk shows, or as a guest speaker at professional seminars such as World Tea Expo or China Global Tea Fair. He is the author ...

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