Camellia sinensis, the plant from which tea leaves and buds are derived, can be grown in many parts of the United States. Despite commercial cultivation attempts since the 1700s, tea has remained a niche crop and has not been widely grown in the US. As of 2020, there is one relatively large fully-mechanized plantation in Charleston, South Carolina, and many small commercial tea gardens that rely on hand-picking. Some growers believe that mechanization is necessary for economically viable tea production, but evidence suggests that unmechanized tea production is viable, albeit with lower profit margins. Most domestically grown teas can be purchased online or through mail order.
As of 2016, the Charleston Tea Garden, situated on Wadmalaw Island outside of Charleston, South Carolina, is the only large-scale tea plantation in the US, spanning 127 acres. Smaller commercial farms are located in the states of Alabama, Hawaii, Oregon, South Carolina, and Washington. A few commercial farms are also being developed in the states of South Carolina, Mississippi, New York, and Texas, but they have not yet started regularly selling their products to the general public.
Tea is one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world, but few know that commercial tea cultivation has a history in the Americas. This article will explore the efforts made to grow tea in Colonial Georgia, Hawaii, and South Carolina.
In 1744, tea seeds were sent to the Trust Garden in Savannah, marking the first attempt at commercial tea cultivation in the Americas. It wasn’t until 1772 that the first successful cultivation of tea plants was recorded on Skidaway Island near Savannah. In 1880, the US Government hired an experienced tea planter from India to cultivate tea plants planted 30 years earlier in Liberty County, Georgia, but the attempt proved unsuccessful.
Tea was introduced in Hawaii in 1887 and commercially grown until 1892. However, historians believe higher wages compared to other prime tea growing areas in Asia and Africa, and the lower production costs of coffee were among the deciding factors that led to the eventual discontinuation of tea cultivation in Hawaii. In the 1960s, Lipton and A&B formed a joint venture to investigate the possibility of growing tea commercially in Hawaii, but both companies decided not to open gardens on the island.
Tea cultivation in South Carolina had a longer history than Georgia and Hawaii. Junius Smith succeeded in growing tea commercially in Greenville from 1848 until his death in 1853. The next short-lived attempt was in Georgetown from 1874 until Dr. Alexis Forster’s death in 1879. In the 1870s, some 200 acres of land near Summerville were leased for an experimental station, but a change of commissioners in 1884 resulted in a report faulting the climate as unsuitable, and the Newington Plantation near Summerville was abandoned. Congress later appropriated $10,000 for a second experimental tea farm in the Summerville area, called the Pinehurst Plantation, located just one mile from the previously terminated effort. Under the leadership of Dr. Charles Shepard, Newington Plantation became quite productive, with annual production at 12,000 pounds in 1887. By 1893, the Pinehurst plants were sufficiently established for the first leaf plucking. Dr. Shepard secured laborers for the fields by opening a school and making tea-picking part of its curriculum, essentially ensuring a force of child labor while providing them with an education they might not otherwise obtain. Despite domestic shipping rates making it difficult to sell the tea to major markets in the US, the Pinehurst produced award-winning teas until Dr. Shepard’s death in 1915. The garden closed after Shepard’s death and Pinehurst lay unattended until 1963.
Charleston Tea Plantation
In 1963, The Lipton Tea Company moved the surviving tea plants from Pinehurst to a former potato farm on Wadmalaw Island due to the instability of third world countries that produce tea. Lipton operated an experimental tea farm until it was sold in 1987 to Mack Fleming and Bill Hall, who converted it into a working tea garden known as the Charleston Tea Plantation. The Charleston Tea Plantation utilized a converted tobacco harvester to mechanically harvest the tea. The Charleston Tea Plantation sold tea mail order known as American Classic Tea and also produced Sam’s Choice Instant Tea, sold through Sam’s Clubs. American Classic Tea has been the official tea of the White House since 1987. In 2003, the plantation was sold to Bigelow Tea Company at a court auction for $1.28 million and was temporarily closed for renovation. The garden reopened in January 2006 and gives free tours to the public.
Lipton conducted a study in the Southern United States which included the establishment of an out-station in Fairhope, Alabama and other select locations. Unfortunately, a hurricane destroyed the material in Fairhope soon after its establishment, causing it to be abandoned. Fortunately, the out-station supervisor managed to salvage a few seeds and cuttings which he used to start a private plantation nearby. This plantation is now known as the Fairhope Tea Plantation and is owned by Donnie Barratt, the son of the out-station supervisor. Although tea is still produced at the plantation, it is in small quantities and sold through a nearby gift shop.
Recent Production in Hawaii and Washington
In 2000, horticulturist Francis Zee discovered a strain of Camellia sinensis, the tea plant, that could thrive in Hawaii’s tropical climate and volcanic soil. The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched a joint study to explore commercially growing tea in Hawaii. As Hawaii’s sugar industry declined, tea cultivation emerged as a promising replacement crop. By 2005, the estimated land area producing tea in Hawaii had increased from 5 acres to roughly 80 acres.
In Burlington, Washington, a farm began producing tea on approximately 5 acres of land in 2010.
Tea Farms in Development Across the United States
Minto Island Growers near Salem, Oregon started marketing small quantities of their own tea in 2013.
The Great Mississippi Tea Company, founded in 2012 in Brookhaven, Mississippi, is currently producing teas and offering tours to the public.
Finger Lakes Tea Company in upstate New York has also started planting tea plants and plans to have products available in 2016.
East Texas Tea Company in Mount Vernon, Texas began tea cultivation in 2009 and sells by private placement.
Table Rock Tea Company, Ltd. in Upstate South Carolina started cultivation in 2008 and currently produces tea and offers tours to the public.
Atealier (formerly East Texas Tea Company) in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho commenced tea growing in 2015 and expanded in 2016 with Nepalese and Sochi seed-stock. The microclimate is moderated by local glacial lakes, and soil and water conditions are conducive to tea growing. Commercial quantities are expected to be available for private sale in approximately 2-4 years.