Did you know that there is only ONE tea plantation in the entire United States of America? It’s true! The Charleston Tea Plantation, located just south of Charleston, South Carolina on Wadmalaw Island, producers of black and green tea, holds this very distinction!
Upon learning that this working tea farm hosted complimentary tours, as well as samples, we were all in! The drive to get there is a delight in itself. Located in an area known as the Low Country (this describes the eastern part of South Carolina that lies in the lower areas along the coast) the tree-shrouded roadways leading you to the plantation seemingly transport you to another time and place. Let’s put it this way – you will NOT be finding any fast food or chain stores here!
Upon arrival and parking, you encounter a pathway leading to the main building that houses the factory, where the tea is processed, and a well-stocked gift shop. Here you can take a free factory tour, purchase tickets for a trolley tour of the grounds (this portion is NOT free), try samples of hot or iced tea (both sweet and unsweet), purchase a tea-inspired gift or one of their nine flavors of tea.
Visiting the grounds and taking the factory tour is certainly interesting – but the trolley tour is the REAL treat. This allows you the opportunity to get out into the plantation and truly experience the size and scope of the operation. The tour lasts around 40 minutes and features a pleasant drive around the plantation, a stop at the greenhouse, tons of “tea” information from your trolley driver as well as some pre-recorded “tea” history from one of the plantation owners – William “Bill” Barclay Hall.
Tea or Camellia Sinensis (its official name) was brought to North America by the Chinese in the 1700’s. Tea proved to be a difficult thing to cultivate in this country and it was not until 1888 when South Carolina’s excellent tropical-like climate, sandy soil and ideal amount of rainfall was discovered to be conducive to growing the plant. The Pinehurst Tea Plantation, in nearby Summerville, South Carolina, became the first tea farm in this country and remained so until the death of its owner, Dr. Charles Shepherd, in 1915. Following his passing, his tea plants grew wild and the plantation remained closed.
In 1987 a professional “tea taster”, (did you know there was such a thing?) by the name of Bill Hall, purchased the land where the Charleston Tea Plantation now flourishes. He obtained his formal “tea tasting” education during a four-year apprenticeship in London, England. It was this knowledge and love for tea that led him to transplant all of the tea plants from the now defunct Pinehurst Plantation to Wadmalaw Island and embark on research and development to revive the tea crops. In 2003 Bigelow Teas infused cash into Hall’s enterprise forming a partnership and subsequently proving to be a very successful commercial operation.
Today the plantation covers 127 acres of row after row of manicured tea plants. There are about 5,000 plants per acre and are sown every eighteen inches to create thick hedge-like rows. Once the plants reach about forty inches tall they are harvested with a “haircut” – flat across the top – to obtain the tender top leaves that are then processed into the tea we enjoy in our homes today.
The harvest begins around May and lasts until late September or early October – depending on the weather. These “haircuts” take place roughly six to eight times per growing season by a custom-made harvester known as the “Green Giant”.
The plantation uses its own specially-devised irrigation system relying 100% on rain and pond water. Excellent water conservation! They use no insecticides, but this does not make their tea “organic” as they do fertilize the crops. They also do not produce “Decaf” tea as the decaffeination process requires the addition of chemicals and they tout their tea as “all natural”.
FUN FACT: There is NO such thing as “herbal” tea? What is referred to as herbal TEA is not tea at all, but more accurately a flavored hot water (official name = tisane) that is infused with plant material, herbs and spices. Now you know!
The complimentary factory tour is very interesting too! The tour, which begins every fifteen minutes on the quarter hour, begins in the gift shop. A hallway travels along overlooking the machinery and factory floor. Overhead television monitors describe what functions the machinery performs and the steps involved in processing the tea.
There are three basic steps in processing the tea from “PLANT to CUP”!
- WITHERING – this removes most of the moisture from the freshly-harvested tea leaves.
- OXIDIZING – this essentially “smashes” the leaves, exposing the leave’s cells to air. It is this step that turns the tea from green to brown – much like cutting into an apple causes it to turn brown, get it? How long the tea is allowed to “oxidize” determines what kind of tea it will be:
- Black – oxidized for 50 minutes.
- Oolong – oxidized for 15 minutes. (not produced at CTP).
- Green – not oxidized at all – making green tea very pale and delicate.
- DRYING – this step removes any remaining moisture.
Charleston Tea Plantation then uses static electricity in a final step to essentially “shake” or “vibrate” any leftover bits and stems out of the delicate tea. These bits are then returned as mulch to help protect and feed the plants in the fields. Another nice effort at recycling and conservation!
With all of the tourist attractions located in downtown Charleston – the tea plantation is a terrific alternative and great way to spend a day enjoying the surrounding countryside. Take along a picnic lunch to enjoy under one of the beautiful Live Oak trees on property. And don’t miss a photo opportunity with the Plantation’s official mascot – Waddy the Frog. Whether you “fancy” yourself a tea drinker or not – I bet you leave with a tin of tea! Contact Info: Charleston Tea Plantation / 6617 Maybank Highway, Wadmalaw Island, SC 29487 / 843 559-0383 / www.charlestonteaplantation.com.
Have you visited the Charleston Tea Plantation? What are some of your favorite places to visit when in the Charleston area? Tell us all about them in the “comments” below – we would LOVE to hear from you!
For another interesting tourist attraction while visiting the Charleston area, check out the Charleston Old City Jail! You can learn all that at it has to offer in our blog post found HERE!