Tea: From Garden to Cup

Tea {Camellia sinensis}

Hardy to Zone 8

We cherish tea for its timeless flavor, health benefits, and social pleasures, yet rarely think of it outside of its box, bag or strainer. In truth, tea {Camellia sinensis} is a valuable plant and can be a prized garden element.
The most useful of the Camellias, the tea plant makes a pleasant, evergreen accent for gardens in the southern United States. In cooler climates, tea can be grown in a pot and moved indoors for winter.
A shrub or small tree native to the highlands of Asia, C. Sinensis thrives in tropical and sub-tropical areas, growing 3 to 12 feet tall and as much as 12 feet across. Glossy, dark green, elliptical leaves cover the plant year round. In late summer to fall, 1-inch creamy white flowers appear, each with a cluster of yellow stamens. Like other camellias, the blooms are delightfully scented.
Modern research is confirming what Asian herbalists have believed for thousands of years: Drinking tea has many health benefits. Recent studies suggest drinking tea can help prevent tooth decay, cancer, and heart disease; and can help heal cuts, burns, bruises, insect bites, sunburn, and swelling.

Tea in the Garden

Tea plants thrive in rich, moist {but well-drained}, acidic soil of 5 to 7 pH-similar to their native woodland soil. Add compost to the garden soil before planting to boost organic matter and improve drainage. In very hot climates, choose a site that receives partial shade in the afternoon. Mulch with a 2- to 3-inch layer of bark to help retain moisture; water regularly the first year. To encourage bushy growth, snip off branch ends just above a strong bud in mid- to late spring.
If you grow tea in a container, as you must in Zones 7 and colder, be sure the potting mix does not hold water. Add compost and sand to the mix to improve drainage and retain nutrients. Keep the soil moist, but not overly wet.
For green tea, harvest only the tender leaves from the tips of branches. In China, the leaves are dried by stir-frying in a hot pan.

Sources of Tea Plants:

Camellia Shop, {877} 666-1169, www.CamelliaShop.com; Forestfarm Nursery, {541} 846-7269, www.ForestFarm.com; Well-Sweep Herb Farm, {908} 852-5390;

All the Tea in America

Cultivated in India and Asia for thousands of years, tea has been grown commercially in the United States since the 19th century. Today, the Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina, is this country’s only tea farm. Owned by R.C. Bigelow, Inc., the 127-acre plantation grows thousands of tea bushes, descendants of plants brought from China and India in the 19th century. For more information about the Charleston Tea Plantation, visit www.BigelowTea.com/act/.

Leaves of Fortune in Your Tea Cup.

Green, black or white, tea offers better health and, potentially, longer life.
The leaves of Camellia sinensis are used to make tea, the world’s second-most popular beverage {after water}. Study after study confirms tea’s wide-ranging health benefits.
Until recently, most Americans and Europeans drank tea only as a tasty, mildly stimulating alternative to coffee. But that’s been changing, as the research on tea’s many health benefits becomes more widely known. The fact is, drinking a few cups of tea a day-especially green tea reduces the risk of many serious conditions, notably heart disease and cancer.
Knowing the full extent of this herb’s healing abilities, you’ll want to make tea time more than an occasional, pleasant break from coffee…drinking tea daily could help you live a longer, healthier life.

Reading the Leaves

Tea {Camellia sinensis} is native to the area where southwest China meets northwest India. The plant is a subtropical evergreen tree, but growers prune it waist-high for easier harvest. China and India each produce about one-quarter of the world’s tea crop, with most of the rest grown in Sri Lanka, Kenya, Turkey, Indonesia, and Vietnam.
The leaves of the plant are used to make four basic types of tea-white, green, oolong and black. In most cases, after harvest, the leaves wilt and oxidize, progressively darkening as their chlorophyll breaks down and combines with oxygen in the air. The tea industry calls this process fermentation. Fermentation is a misnomer, however, because the process does not involve microorganisms-what actually occurs in oxidation.
Variations on this basic process result in the different types of tea. Black tea is wilted and fully oxidized. Oolong tea is wilted and partially oxidized. Green tea is wilted but not oxidized. White tea, made only from immature leaves and buds, is picked, steamed and dried immediately-it is not wilted nor oxidized.
Black tea accounts for an estimated 78 percent of worldwide tea consumption. Green tea accounts for about 20 percent, and white and oolong together account for only around 2 percent.

A Wealth of Antioxidants

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, tea is considered a “grease cutter” that prevents harm from fatty foods, according to Efrem Korngold, O.M.D., a practitioner of Chinese medicine in San Francisco, and coauthor {with Harriet Beinfield, L.Ac.} of Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine {Ballantine Books, 1992}.
Japanese researchers wondered if this traditional belief could be scientifically verified. In the 1980s, they found potent antioxidant compounds in tea, notably epigallocatechin-3-gallate {EGCG}. Antioxidants help prevent and repair the cell damage that can lead to heart disease and many cancers. Since then, dozens of additional studies have shown tea reduces the risk of these diseases and helps treat them, thus validating Traditional Chinese Medicine’s claim.
The oxidation process that turns white and green teas into oolong and black teas destroys some of their EGCG. Black teas still contain significant amounts of antioxidants, which is why they reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. But black teas have not shown much ability to reduce cancer risk. For cancer prevention, green tea is the way to go because it retains the most EGCG. White tea is promising too, although more studies are needed. As the least processed tea, it contains the most cancer-fighting polyphenols.

Tea Reduces Risk of Heart Disease

In the West, tea began its transformation from beverage into health food in 1993, when Dutch researchers published a study in the prestigious British medical journal Lancet on the effects of dietary antioxidants on the risk of heart attack among residents of Zutphen, a city in the Netherlands. Men who consumed the most fruits and vegetables had the lowest heart attack risk. But tea also was protective, a finding that surprised Western scientists and sent them scurrying to the earlier Japanese research on EGCG.
Since then, many studies have shown tea-both black and green helps prevent heart disease and the most common type of stroke. Another group of Dutch researchers followed 4,807 men for five years. Compared with those who drank no tea, men who drank one or two cups a day had 43 percent less heart attack- and 70 percent had less heart attack deaths. Similar studies by Harvard and Saudi Arabian scientists also show fewer heart attacks and heart attack deaths in regular tea drinkers. And a Dutch study shows tea also reduces the risk of stroke.
If tea really helps the heart, it should exhibit a “dose-response” effect as tea consumption increases, heart disease risk should decline. That is the case. In the Harvard study, moderate tea drinkers were 31 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack. The figure for heavy tea drinkers was 39 percent. The Saudi study also showed a dose-response effect.
How do the antioxidants in tea reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke? Several ways: They reduce cholesterol. They improve arterial function. And they slow the buildup of fatty, cholesterol-rich deposits on artery walls {atherosclerosis that can lead to heart attacks and strokes.
Note: If you drink tea for heart benefits, don’t add milk. A German study suggests milk somehow neutralizes EGCG, counteracting tea’s heart-helping actions.

Green Tea Reduces Risk of All Major Cancers

An occasional report shows no cancer-protective benefits for green tea, but these few negative findings are vastly outnumbered by dozens of studies that show increasing green tea consumption decreases the risk of all major cancers, including breast, ovarian, cervical, lung, stomach, prostate, colorectal, esophageal, pancreatic and malignant melanoma.
Green tea shows a clear “dose-response” effect for cancer prevention. Consider breast cancer. Australian researchers categorized green tea consumption in 2,018 Chinese women as low, moderate or high. Low tea intake reduced breast cancer risk 13 percent; moderate, 32 percent; high, 41 percent. A study at the University Of Southern California showed a similar dose-response effect for reducing breast cancer risk.
Of course, some green tea drinkers still developed cancer. But if green tea has cancer-preventive benefits, then we would expect green tea drinkers to get cancer later in life than those who do not drink it. That’s precisely what Japanese researchers showed in a study correlating tea drinking in Japan with people’s age at cancer diagnosis. Compared with Japanese who drank less than three cups of green tea daily, women who drank more than 10 cups a day developed all cancers an average of almost nine years later. The figure for men was three years later.
In addition, when cancer develops, green tea minimizes its aggressiveness as well as its likelihood to recur. When Japanese researchers analyzed the breast cancers of 472 women, they found that those who drank the greenest tea had the least aggressive cancers and the lowest likelihood of recurrences.

Drink Tea for Longer Life

Many studies also show tea reduces the risk of other serious {or potentially serious} conditions, such as diabetes, osteoporosis, dementia, rheumatoid arthritis, eczema and tooth decay.
White tea, only recently studied by researchers, appears to have more antibacterial and antiviral capabilities than green tea, according to research conducted by Pace University.
Because tea reduces the risk of so many conditions, Japanese researchers wondered if it could literally be a life saver. To find out, they followed 40,530 healthy Japanese adults for 11 years. Drinking tea decreased the risk of death from all causes. Compared with drinking less than one cup a day, drinking tea regularly reduced the risk of death. And the greater the tea consumption, the greater the benefits. Drinking five or more cups a day cut death risk 12 percent in men and 23 percent in women.
So, drink up. Tea is much more than a tasty mildly stimulating alternative to coffee. Tea, especially green tea, is a life saver.
 Tea often is named after the region where it was grown. Darjeeling tea is harvested from the mountains of Darjeeling in West Bengal, India. Pu-er is a large-leaf tea from Yunnan, China. Lapsang souchong is a smoked black tea originally from China’s Fujian Province.