Coffee (usually Coffea arabica or Coffea canephora) is one of the many things Seattle is known for. No matter where you are in the city, you’re never far from a business that will sell you coffee, quite possibly coffee that was roasted down the block or in the back room. I enjoy coffee and drink it occasionally, but consuming it too often overwhelms my basic sense of calm and stability.
Coffee plant with immature fruit in the Botany Greenhouse
Mostly I drink tea (Camellia sinensis), and so do a lot of other people. According to the Tea Association of the U.S.A., half the American population drinks tea every day. The Turks drink more tea per capita than the citizens of any other country. They drink about 21 times as much tea as Americans. Bless them, the Turks. In the coastal town of Marmaris, having debarked after a ferry trip from Rhodes, I long ago had the experience of sitting in a tea house on a rainy autumn afternoon, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. As soon as my cup started to run dry or my cigarette was burning low, one or another fellow customer paid for my next cup and offered, nay, forced another cigarette into my hand. Turkey was a much less prosperous country in 1989 when I visited and the extreme generosity of the tea house patrons stands in memory as an example of how to live in the world. I no longer smoke, but I still love tea.
Tea (Camellia sinensis)
growing in the Medicinal Herb Garden
In case you imagine tea as an exotic, tropical or subtropical plant, you’re right and you’re wrong. Yes, it is exotic. It is native to southeastern Asia. The Chinese are the top producers of tea in the world, followed closely by India. Yes, it does well in the tropics and subtropics, but it is grown as far north as Vancouver Island and Washington state as well as Cornwall in the U.K., all places where the marine climate buffers the winter extremes of the far northern latitude.
There is a large hedge of tea plants growing in the Medicinal Herb Garden on the south and west borders of section A. They are extremely hardy, broadleaved evergreen shrubs that do well in full sun but also in shade. If you plan to pick the leaves to make tea, your best bet is to give them full sun in Seattle. As long as they get some water, they put out a lot more growth in the sun. I harvest leaves, the new growth at the branch tips, in late spring to early summer. It is traditional to pick the top ‘two leaves and a bud’, the bud being the newest leaf which has not fully unfurled. The University of Hawaii has an excellent primer on processing tea at home. You can adapt their methods to your own preferences. For instance, they use a microwave to process green tea and I use a steamer instead. But their instructions are quite clear and easy to follow.
It’s surprising, considering the influence of Chinese and Japanese culture in Seattle, that there is so little tea growing in this city. Living on Beacon Hill, a traditionally Chinese neighborhood, especially since the end of WWII , I walk the nearby streets, making note of what people are growing. An ancient goji berry shrub (Lycium chinense) grows on the border with my neighbor to the north. Loquats (Eriobotrya japonica) and Asian pears (Pyrus pyrifolia) are planted all over the place up here. But where is the tea? I don’t understand.
People of Seattle and anywhere with a similar climate, please start growing tea. Having processed both green and black teas from the Medicinal Herb Garden hedge, I can tell you that you can produce a high quality tea here. When most people think of Camellia, it’s usually the ornamental C. japonica or C. sasanqua with large, red, pink or white flowers. C. sinensis is not as ornamental, though it puts out respectable, white and yellow flowers through the winter. But it does produce tea. Imagine Seattle in 20 years, when different neighborhoods brag about the terroir of their teas, teas that you planted! There are all sorts of studies on the positive health effects of tea, especially green tea, but let’s face it, most of us drink it for the caffeine and the taste and the wonderful rituals involving its preparation.
Forget about boxwood (Buxus sempervirens), forget about privet (Ligustrum spp.) and get some tea plants. Be the first one on your block with a tea hedge. You won’t be sorry.
these shriveled green leaves
picked fresh when spring meets summer
fill our cups with tea
See you in the garden.