Drinking tea is as big in South Carolina as it is in England or the Far East. While Southern tradition does not pivot on afternoon tea times or tiny pots of steamy oolong, we have our rituals nevertheless: Boil water, throw in some tea bags, steep, add sugar, dilute with water, pour over ice and guzzle. Fat wedges of lemon and sprigs of mint are optional. Morning, noon or night, any time is tea time in the South.
There is one significant similarity shared by South Carolina and other hardcore tea-loving nations: we grow our own tea right here. The roots of Wadmalaw Island’s Charleston Tea Plantation run deep and tell a story of fanciful dreams and remarkable perseverance.
Tea, Travels and Travails
In the 1700s, the first Camellia Sinensis plants found their way from China to South Carolina–Summerville specifically–courtesy of a French botanist named Andre Michaux. He knew the subtropical-like conditions of some of South Carolina’s coastal areas deliver humidity, rainfalls and temperatures similar to the faraway places where tea plants thrive. But not so fast–it still took two lengthy, failed attempts–and one by the U.S. government, even–before scientist and philanthropist Dr. Charles Shepard experienced the first tea growing success at his Pinehurst Tea Plantation; established in 1884 also in Summerville. His tea became quite popular, especially after it won first place at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Alas, when Shepard died in 1915, the tea plants were abandoned and so was the dream of South Carolina-produced tea.
In 1960, Lipton bought the property, salvaged some of the tea plants and moved them to a research farm on Wadmalaw Island. After a few years, it was once again concluded that South Carolina was not well-suited for tea growing. But London professional tea taster William Barclay Hall kept the faith, buying out the operation in 1987 and Charleston Tea Plantation was born. On these 127 acres, he and his team successfully cultivated tea, which soon found favor nationally and was aptly branded American Classic Tea. When tea giant Bigelow bought the farm in 2003, they formed a partnership with Hall, kept the brand and stayed true to the plantation’s tea growing traditions. While you can buy fancy named teas from any market, you know you’re getting nothing but 100 percent U.S. grown tea when you choose the American Classic brand.
Come for the History, the Tea and More
Today, you can visit this national agricultural wonder and see how tea is grown, South Carolina style. Charleston Tea Plantation is open seven days a week, but it does close for some holidays. Take a factory tour to learn how tea is processed, or hop the trolley to hear about and see the hard won results of more than two centuries of perseverance–green fields of Camellia Sinensis derived from those very first plants.
Don’t miss the Propagation Hut, where you’ll learn how plants are selected and cloned, and pick up a souvenir at the delightful all things tea gift shop. You can also plan to make a day of it. Pack a picnic and spend hours exploring the natural beauty of the farm with your family. But no matter how you choose to experience Charleston Tea Plantation, the best perk is yours for the taking: all the delicious, homegrown tea you can drink.