Turning misfortune and waste into Camellia tea propagation and processing experiments.

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When 2018 rang in for Hortfire LLC, there was some optimistic thoughts that this coming year, things were going to be different and that changes were on the horizon.  Well, some of that optimistic thoughts vanished very quickly with the Polar Vortex event of 2018.  There was a record setting of duration of time below 32 F(0C) degrees, there was a record set for the intensity of snowfall over a period of time, 5inches (12.7 cm) in most places up to 6.5 in (16.51 cm) other isolated places, and the  record of all records set, the duration of snow covered landscape was 5 days (I don’t think it has ever been more than 48 hours, ever).

Snow filled streets of dogwood

I can officially say now, I have seen a white Christmas, snow on my birthday, and snow covered landscape for over 3 days while living in Charleston, South Carolina. This is kinda a trifecta that normally would be reserved to people living in higher latitudes, now granted none of it happened in the same year and happened over a span of thirty years.

tea liner snow covered

Remarkably the Camellia tea propagated from last Spring that was not protect, made it through with no losses, this was a complete surprise.  What happened at the beginning of February after the snow melted and we got a warm period of temperatures in the upper 60’s F (15.55~20.55 C), kinda of threw some of us for a loop. It never got cold again, the temperatures dipping into the low 40’s F (4.44~6.66 C) at night was far and few and in between. Night time temperatures stay above 45 F (7.2 C) and averaged in the low 50’s F (10 C), while day time temperatures ranged from 60’s F to upper 70’s F (15~26 C). In essence, we gained about an extra 4 weeks of Spring before even Spring started on the Vernal Equinox.

Traditionally, the 3rd week of March is when pine pollen starts to drop to coincide with the Vernal Equinox, the pine pollen dropped at the end of February and the 3rd week of March the tea propagated from last year was starting to flush out of winter dormancy. Typically it is during this time of the year I do Spring asexual cutting propagation before the buds break dormancy. I was caught off guard and not ready to take cuttings. I had hoped a cold week would hold everything back after the consistent warm temperatures. Once the buds break, you cannot do the cutting propagation because there is no way for water to be absorbed and to cut the cuttings hydrated enough until successful rooting. Even a high humidity situation with moderate temperatures would still lead to new growth and eventually death of the cuttings. If I had some older more mature wood to use, then maybe I could of done some cuttings, but even then after the deep cold even single bud that could break did.

I felt a little defeated as this happened, because essentially the prime time of the year for me to conduct cutting propagation without the aid of a greenhouse or any other environmental controlled space had never really happened. In effect, I was looking at being set back by a year with bulking the production of plants. I wanted to look at the bright side of things. The bright side was,”ok you lost this Spring’s propagation period, but at least you will have a good long Spring’s growth and maybe try some late summer and fall propagation.” I have tried late summer and fall cutting propagation in the past with low tech system I traditionally use. It never has been successful, late summer and fall cuttings typically need extra mist and ability to exchange air over the leaf so that the ambient temperature is not in the 90’s(32.22 C).

After watching a lot of strong growth this Spring, it kinda of occurred to me, maybe not all is lost, maybe I needed to take a risk to get a reward.  The last week of April and early weeks of May, were not super hot, but they were dry.  Green wood cuttings have never rooted to the best of my knowledge outside of in vitro conditions from tissue culture.  Green wood is fresh growth that has not harden off, and my former instructor Mack Fleming, said it was never worth trying to root anything above the harden to green transition area. Mack worked for Lipton and not only was one of the managers of the Wadamlaw Island Experimental Station that Lipton had, he was also one of the first owners of the original Charleston Tea Plantation. His rooted cutting got shipped all over the world from Wadmalaw Island.

From the previous year’s propagation of Camellia japonica, I had done some cuttings in mid-May a week before the heat and humidity took over. I had a fairly decent amount of rooting from single node cuttings of mature wood in just trays filled with rooting media.  What was different this time, I recently acquired two different style plug flat plastic trays. So instead of waiting a year to utilize them, I made some rooting media, filled the trays, watered them in, and watered my plants. The next day, I took large pieces of cutting wood, as I had staked my plants and were pruning them to further shape their growth.  Of that wood, I systematically made single node cuttings of relatively firm stem pieces. I wound the base and applied the normal rooting hormone regime I use for Spring propagation.

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Over the course of several days, I stuck 153 single node cuttings. While this was purely a random experiment, there is no statistical confidence attach to that number. This was more likely a preliminary observation applied experiment. Even if a handful root, it would be success.

Two of the main reasons, we don’t see it this as so much as a risk but more as an opportunity to make good of a bad situation is because it falls within a research scope of “micro-macropropagation” and it is done on a limited scale initially. Even if it is a total failure, we will more than likely revisit this experiment next and the year follow it on a limited basis, unless we get decent to good results this year.

The other reason is a direct influence of three people who bestowed upon me the art, science, and business of propagation, first Sharon Coke, one my instructors at Trident Technical College and second Bob Head, one of my mentors and former boss. A third influence to certain extent would also be Jay Coke, former boss.

Sharon always talked about mechanized planting being the future of greenhouse crops and woody ornamental (if it could be efficiently figured out), the key to mechanized planting was plug flats. She also always put a strong emphasis on yield per area for a crop in production. If you can yield a higher number of rooted cuttings per area, the overall cost got thinned out over a higher number of plants.

Bob Head on the other hand, he always made a point to figure out when to propagate a crop out of season. Because if you could propagate a crop out of season, you had an advantage over your competition. Bob was also adamant if you are going to experiment, start small and see if you get consistent results, before scaling up or making a change in how you do things. He also reinforced, to conduct it as an experiment and don’t “skew yourself over,” in other words, make sure you treatments and controls where equal in effort and in numbers. He also would also intermix treatments and controls on the benches, just not randomized but more like alternate them, so they where not in big blocks in one particular area of the bench.

Jay Coke comes in as a influence because of my time working under him doing tissue culture micropropagation and also working on a project producing over a 150,000 tree liners in a short period of time. Micropropagation and Somatic Embryogensis are both in vitro propagation methods conducted in a lab and growth chamber setting that through a small period of time can yield large number of plants, the only drawback can be transferring from the lab to the greenhouse to out in the field. Micropropagation tissue culture utilizes essentially the same procedure as macropropagation but in a sterile environment and specialize media, which all come at a high cost.  It is from that time for working in tissue culture that developing a good repeatable technique in making cuttings comes in. The other time of doing the large scale project more so comes from using advanced growing techniques and attention to details with using high value inputs. Don’t cheap the product from day one and also discard less than desirable material, even if you have a deadline to make a quota.

To me, it is more important to share those details than it is to get into specifics of the experiment such as rooting hormone concentrations, details about the condition of the cutting wood, or what my rooting media is made of.  While we have a method that works for us, it might not be a method that works for you.

On the third day of sticking cuttings, I looked down and noticed that I was discarding a lot what would be pekoe cuts of leaf. After the first cultivar, I decided I was going to again make the most of a wasteful situation.  That is when I decided when I would do the next cultivar, I would save the discarded pieces and experiment with processing tea.

I have in the past at times dabbled with processing experiments when I had time and leaf to do so.  It has actually been quite a long time since I have ever done anything like that.  So I decided I was going to try to experiment with making some green tea. So I basically applied a crude form of my curing method I use for Cassina tea to Camellia tea. (It was such a small quantity of leaf anyways).

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The curing method is a departure from normal methods of producing green tea, even from the method I show people who want homegrown green or white tea.

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Now the cultivar I used for this experiment is called HSAH 4. While we are unsure, if it is a true cambod variety of Camellia sinensis or is merely a hybrid between the assam variety and sinensis variety, we are sure we will take a strong look at this cultivar for oolong tea development in the future.

Tea propagation update May 2017

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Some of the goals of the experiment is to see if we can modify the production processing to create a tea that is more in align or similar to brewing black tea. Most Americans, do not understand brewing different teas at different water temperatures. Most Americans, just boil the water, add tea bags, let it steep and then let it cool. Most formal tea drinking Americans know this is not good. So, if we can create a product that moves around some of the parameters of how to make it and taste good, then we feel we would be meeting our goal. You have to remember, America’s relationship with tea has been unique in it’s own right. American’s do love tea and will drink large amounts of it, but American’s do enjoy simple methods in their culinary affairs as well.

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So as you can see I brewed two cups worth. I steeped it for 5 minutes at 190 F (87.77 C) water. What came out was fairly good for what American’s have a taste of green tea. It definitely had a grassy flavor to it. While that might seem not good in other parts of the world, most Americans like it. This tea was light and balanced with a small sweet hint to it. The grassy flavor was not over powering, so again with Americans, they would more than likely identify this with being fresh. So for a first time experiment, I felt we had something worth working on in the future. The next time  I have the leaf, I will make some changes but nothing major, if I can tone down the grassy flavor just a little, then we would have something worth packaging. In comparison to drinkable and undrinkable camellia tea, this was very much drinkable compared to the Selim Hills organic First Flush Darjeeling.

We are also looking at some other applications through this experimental processing method. While I will decline to give the exact details as into what, we are hoping these other applications will further create a demand for fresh domestic produced camellia leaf here in the United States.

As Spring turns into Summer, we will hopefully give a update later on the propagation experiment and hopefully there will be some success, just have to wait and see. As far as the processing experiments, this is probably the first and last time I am going to mention it. I might do an update at some point in the future. We wanted to share all of this with you, because we are just like anyone else, we have our challenges, we have our failures, and we have our goods days and bad days. Making the most out of what you have and eliminating waste are just part of our positive philosophy to make the world a better place then when we found it. It is just another example of how we “Grow Forward” and want you to grow forward with us.

Until next time my friends, take care and I hope you have a teatastic time in the future!

Joshua

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