Sunday, September 17, 2017

Hawaiian Tea

Tea from Hawaii?

tea plants, Hawaii Tea, Volcano, Hawaii
tea 
Tea, Camelia sinensis, is a major tropical crop. Hawaii is the only state in the United States with a tropical climate, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that Hawaiians are growing tea. But it did!

Tea plants prefer temperatures between 55 and 90 oF, day and night. Chinese teas (Camelia sinensis var. sinensis) will survive the occasional light frost or snowstorm, Indian teas (Camelia sinensis var. assamica) will not. Teas grow well acidic soils, not alkaline ones. And they need water, lots of water, as humidity especially. If you have these conditions, tea plants will grow well. But not much of the U.S.--or the world for that matter--has those conditions, so tea-growing regions are quite restricted. The area around the town of Volcano, Hawaii, at 3,750' elevation on Mt. Kilauea of the Big Island, has those characteristics.

In Volcano, I visited Tea Hawaii, the plantation of Eva Lee and Chiu Leong. (website) They have been raising tea since about 2000. They are open to the public by appointment and Eva showed us around.
unpruned tea plant
Unpruned tea plant
Tea plants are small trees, so unpruned they grow ten to 15 feet high. Cultivated tea plants are trimmed to be easily reached by tea pickers, but also because pruning stimulates the production of new leaves. The tea we drink is made from the three youngest leaves.

tea plants, Hawaii Tea, Volcano, Hawaii

Tea production in Hawaii is new compared to Asia. Hawaii Tea was experimenting with tea varieties and conditions for growth, but the majority of their tea was planted under the forest. The forest in Volcano is a well-developed native Hawaiian forest of tree ferns, koa (Acacia koa), mamaki (Pipturus albidus) and others. The plantation was a curious combination of neatly planted and pruned tea plants and Hawaiian native trees.

Hawaii Tea forest, Volcano Hawaii
Tea under the Hawaiian forest
Hawaii Tea is making an effort to incorporate the tea into the forest, not remove the forest for the tea. So the forest was a wonderful collection of native trees, including this big koa that vanished up into the forest canopy. (Koa photos online link)

Acacia koa, Volcano, Hawaii
koa, Acacia koa, Hawaiian native
When Hawaii Tea got started, the forest on the property was badly invaded by kahili ginger, Hedychium gardnerianum. This very pretty plant, native to Asia, was introduced to Hawaii as an attractive ornamental but has spread dramatically, filling the understory and smothering native plants. In the areas where they are growing tea, Hawaii Tea has successfully eradicated kahili ginger. The tea planation is thus both a a successful agricultural experiment and an ecological victory.

kahili ginger
kahili ginger
forest, Hawaii Tea, Volcano, Hawaii
Forest at Hawaii Tea: no kahili ginger
Tea is grown for the new leaves on tea plant:

new leaves on tea plant


The tea is carefully hand picked: Eva demonstrates the leaves that are chosen

tea leaves for tea


All tea, black, green, oolong, is from the same leaves, the difference is in the amount of fermentation and roasting. Eva showed us the dried tea leaves and let us try different teas

unroasted tea leaves
Unroasted, unfermented tea leaves: these make "white tea"
fermented and roasted tea leaves
Roasted and fermented tea leaves, black tea.
Cups of tea representing a range of roasting and fermenting options

array of teas
Four different fermentation levels, from none, the white tea on
the left, to quite a lot, the "black" tea on the far right
Eva explained that whether it is a lot or a little caffeine in tea leaves depends on the growing conditions and the tea variety, not the treatment after picking. I greatly enjoyed tasting the teas--I prefer greens, but liked the white tea very much and the darker teas were quite tasty. And of course I departed on a caffeine high from all that tea. A very nice experience.

forest with tea, Volcano, Hawaii
Tea under the forest view
None of the dozen or so people who grow tea in Hawaii has very large acreage, indeed, that may be impossible because the total area of tea-growing environments in all of Hawaii is quite limited. Production is therefore relatively small and popular teas often run out before the next harvest. You'll have to look for Hawaiian tea, even in Hawaii. But check it out!

Comments and corrections welcome.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

References
Hawaii Tea website
Jensen,  Chelsea. 2017. Invasive ginger to be eradicated. Hawaii Tribune Herald Sept. 4, 2017. online
Love Big Island. Kahili ginger link
Main, E. 2010. How to grow your own tea. link 
RateTea.com 2013. Climate, geography and tea production. link
US Tea Planting Tips - Nigel Melican, Teacraft Ltd. link

You might also like these blog posts:

Camellia and tea link
camellia flower
camellia flower












Visiting Hawaii link
coast of Hawaii

Plant Confusions: the Three Bergamots. Because bergamot is what makes Earl Grey tea distinctive. link 
bergamot the mint
Bergamot
 but not the bergamot in tea

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