Riding a trolley through fields planted with neat rows of tea bushes, I was savoring the leftover taste of the Plantation Peach tea I’d sampled just before our tour of the Charleston Tea Plantation began. The tea was so smooth, as if it had brewed for a long time.
Just as I was making a mental note to pour myself another cup after the tour, our driver quipped: “Here on Wadmalaw Island, we have a saying: Start your day slowly and then taper off from there.”
I laughed along with the other tourists as we gazed out the trolley windows at the many shades of green surrounding us — the light-green grass and the tea bush leaves, the dark-green live oak trees (many of them massive) dripping with silvery-green Spanish moss, and a huge harvesting machine that our guide called the Green Giant because it’s painted a bright green and can “do the work of 500 people.”
Thanks to the Green Giant, our guide said, this plantation — the only commercial tea plantation in North America — needs a staff of just a few to grow and harvest the tea leaves, in contrast with other tea plantations around the world that still use lots of human laborers rather than machinery in the fields.
My husband and I and our 15-year-old daughter drink tea constantly at home (hot and iced, caffeinated and decaf, and a variety of flavors). Our 7-year-old is usually filled with so much energy that the thought of giving him caffeine scares us, but even he enjoys some soothing herbal tea. So when we discovered this gem while planning a trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C., we knew that it would be worthwhile to drive roughly 120 miles farther south to see how tea is grown, harvested and manufactured.
The next closest tea plantation in the world is in Guatemala, I’d learned from a large map on the gift shop wall that used red lights to show the various locations where the world’s tea is grown. Most of the plantations are in Asia and Africa, which lit up on the map like Christmas trees at a mall.
“Tea bushes love heat and humidity, and we’ve got plenty of both right here,” said our guide, referring to the typical weather in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, where Wadmalaw Island is located. It’s about 20 miles southwest of downtown Charleston, which isn’t far geographically but seems worlds away culturally, since the quiet, sparsely populated island — part of the Sea Islands, like its better-known neighbor Kiawah Island — lacks Charleston’s sophistication. Although Charleston’s elegant historic district is nearby, Wadmalaw Island is so underdeveloped that it looks as if history may have passed it by.
A few tea plantations had existed in the area over the past 200 years, our guide said. But none was particularly successful until the company that makes Lipton sold its research fields — used to study how tea grows best in North America — here on Wadmalaw to “professional tea taster” (as our guide described him) William Barclay Hall, a Canadian who studied tea in England and moved to South Carolina to grow it, and Trident Technical College horticulture professor Mack Fleming in 1987.
Hall later began working with the tea company R.C. Bigelow Inc., which now sells the tea grown at the plantation under the label American Classic Tea. The plantation has developed a reputation among tea connoisseurs as a place that carefully guards the flavor of its products, our guide informed us.
Soon after giving us an overview of the plantation’s history, our guide let us know that we were about to encounter its tea-taster founder. “That looks like Bill’s golf cart parked by the greenhouse right now,” he announced, steering the trolley over. Feeling jumpy with excitement (or possibly from all the caffeine I’d consumed sampling tea before the tour), I bounded out of the trolley and nearly bumped into an older couple as I headed a bit too eagerly into the greenhouse. Slow down, I reminded myself.
Slow seemed to be the key word here. Our group looked through a long glass window into the greenhouse, watching Hall, whose long gray hair hung down over the top of his T-shirt, as he carefully examined tea plants waiting to be transplanted to the fields outside to see if they were ready. He slowly ran his fingers over the plants’ tiny leaves with the concentration of a surgeon conducting a post-op examination. Whatever he saw seemed to utterly fascinate him, and I became fascinated watching his fascination. Our group watched Hall intently as our guide explained the wonders of the Camellia sinensis plant that produces tea, but Hall barely looked up from the plants other than to smile shyly and wave at us.
Patience is crucial when growing tea, our guide told us, since tea bushes take several years to mature after they’re planted. Restraint is also important, since the best tea flavor comes only from the youngest, tenderest leaves at the top of the bush each season — so producers need to be careful to use only those few leaves when making tea, or they could ruin the flavor they’ve cultivated. I felt a twinge of regret as I thought of how many times in the past I’d rushed through the process of simply drinking tea — gulping it down in the morning for a jolt of caffeine — when I could have been savoring its flavor more.
After leaving the greenhouse, we rode past empty fields that sat patiently waiting for the moment when the company would decide that it was time to plant them with tea bushes. “We could have expanded the plantation quicker, but we wanted to take our time,” our guide explained, as he listed the eight blends of tea cultivated on-site and informed us that the company has no plans to offer any others in the foreseeable future.
Touring the plantation factory was less engaging than the trolley tour; it was just a few minutes of watching timed videos on screens in a hallway overlooking the factory floor. There was lots of helpful information about tea production, but I found myself wanting to go back to the greenhouse and just stare at Hall staring at the tea plants in wonder.
Afterward, I poured myself a sample cup of Island Green iced tea. But I didn’t just knock it back quickly; I sipped it slowly, letting the golden brown liquid linger in my mouth the way a Southern afternoon gently lingers on Wadmalaw Island, until evening melts it away.
Hopler is a freelance writer and editor in Fairfax who blogs at www.whitneyhopler.
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