When I met Amy, beer was my beverage of choice. While she was prone to have a beer from time to time, she really had a taste for hot tea. I learned to like the taste of Constant Comment and assorted black teas over the years we have been married.
Since then I have become fascinated with green tea and the health benefits that go along with it.
With that said, I never really gave too much thought to where the tea came from. I suppose I understood that it came from somewhere overseas - a dim picture of oriental tea plantations shipping crates of tea to England was somewhere in the back of my mind but that was about it.
On our trip to Charleston over Spring Break, we picked up a pamphlet for the Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island, about 25 minutes from Charleston. Wadmalaw Island is interesting in itself as it is pretty unspoiled and protected from development (or at least any more than is already there).
On the drive to the plantation, you feel like you are going back in time. Massive live oaks covered with Spanish moss line the roads. There are some old gas stations that still seem to serve folks and some stately older homes on the tip of the island. You pass the spot where you can see the Angel Oak, one of the largest oaks in existence and apparently the oldest living thing east of the Mississippi. Save time to stop here on the way back from the plantation.
At the entrance to Chareston Tea Plantation, you drive past a couple of fields of what look like low cut privet hedges to a new metal building that is the combination tea production facility and gift shop. You can take a free self guided tour of the production facility in which the process of sorting and drying is described on video screens for you. The entire facility is about as big as a small gymnasium and apparently they have room for more production out of this building.
What you really have to do is take the tour of the plantation itself. It costs $10 per person and you get to ride in a covered trolley/bus for the 30 minute trip around the tea fields. The tea plants themselves are from cuttings from the original South Carolina ones planted on a private plantation over a hundred years ago. The ride out in to the fields (the plantation covers 127 acres) is peaceful and the narrative informative.
What was news to me was that the Charleston Tea Plantation has the only tea plants grown and harvested for sale in America. Most of the tea grown in the world is in the Far East and Africa. The owner of the Charleston Tea Plantation, Bill Hall, sold it to Bigelow in 2003 but remains as both the overseer of daily operations and lives on the property as well.
The tea plants are grown without any pesticides or chemicals. It seems they have few, if any, natural predators. They are harvested using a one-of-a kind machine that was made specifically for this purpose – there is no other in America. I suppose preventative maintenance is important with this little beauty.
On our trip, in early April, the tea plants were not completely in bloom yet. I say bloom as they do have flowers, but not on top of the plants as they are repeatedly harvested from the top throughout the growing season. You could see the process of trimming and planting that was taking place at different locations on the property.
After the trolley tour, we explored as much of the property as we were allowed to (there are a couple varieties of poisonous snakes and other creatures that the owners would rather not have you encounter). It is a nice change from the downtown Charleston experience and gets you in touch with the rural history of South Carolina. You can also pick up some tea at the gift shop and brew some truly American tea for yourself. Plus you get to see that little oak tree on the way back to town.