A joyful visit to America’s heirloom camellia tea.


In August, I had the honor to meet with Dr Donglin Zhang, University of Georgia and Dr Zhilong Hao, Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University. Both gentlemen came to Charleston for a very short trip to visit with me and to go look at the tea growing out at Charleston County Parks and Recreational Caw Caw Interpretative Center.

I contacted Thomas Thornton, Facility Manager of Caw Caw, after Dr Hao expressed a desire to visit. I have in the past communicated with Mr. Thornton and he always maintained to contact him about the tea. I gave Mr. Thornton a date, a time, and an overview of wanting to inspect the camellia tea plants. He gave me a confirmation that it would work for him and I relayed the message to Dr Hao.

What most people don’t know about Caw Caw Interpretative Center, is that there is approximately 5 acres of camellia tea growing wild and has been for over one hundred years. These camellia tea plants are hybrid seed from Pinehurst Tea plantation and this operation represents the first and only known commercial attempt to come from Pinehurst Tea Plantation.  American Tea Growers was the name of the operation before it finally was dissolved in 1907.

On a balmy Saturday morning in August, Dr Zhang, Dr Hao, and myself met with Mr. Thornton. I introduced both of the visiting scholars to Mr Thornton. After a very short discussion about some tea Mr Thornton was propagating in an open environment, he pulled up in a golf cart and we were off into the park. Normally, from the center to the tea can be a ten to fifteen minute walk. Once we reached the tea information kiosk board, we traveled by foot down one of the original roads of the farm.

Mr. Thornton lead us down the road, telling us various aspects of the park, the tea, and other information. While this was not my first time to the park, this was the first time accompanying guests at the park.

As we walked further down the path and continued to talk, the diversity of camellia tea became very apparent to both Dr Zhang and Dr Hao. I brought plastic bags, because I knew once both Dr Zhang and Dr Hao saw the plants, they would want to take seeds and cuttings. Mr Thornton also told them they were more than welcome to.

Joshua thomas zhang talking on trail in front of lucky tea

As we continued to walk and examine the variety of leaves, plants flowering, and other native flora mixed in, someone noticed a different looking seed pod. It had 4 seeds instead of 3 or less.

four podded tea seeds

This 4 podded seeds were intriguing to all of us.  Within a very short distance, we came across a tree with many 4 podded seeds, but more importantly it also had 5 podded seeds. YES, we observed and harvested 5 podded tea seeds. As soon as Dr Hao, Dr, Zhang, and myself realized what we had found, we looked at each other in awe. My response was,”Lucky Tea.”

What makes 5 podded tea seed so special, even 4 podded, is that it means those plants are of a different species of Camellia. They are not Camellia sinensis, they are camellia species. Could they be Camellia taliensis hybrids with sinensis? Whatever they are, their flower has 5 ovaries versus sinensis having 3.

zhilong flower

While I cannot identify which species it may be or hybrid with, what I can say is that this was an extremely important find for tea cultivation, domestically and abroad. It reaffirms that unique tea germplasma was collected and brought to the United States from all over Asia. It also reaffirms, the belief that United States already has all the genetics it would ever need to have a robust diverse and sustainable tea industry domestically. Still, that “lucky” tea represents a very important and significant specimen to the research and development of camellia tea science.

As the day grew warm and humid, we decided it was time to go back to the park center. It was there that Dr Hao brewed a number of samples, with about 3 to 4 small servings of tea from each sample. From fine white needles to a chocolate oolong, it was a collection of beautiful teas.

Thomas Zhilong Joshua tea cheers smiling.jpg

We finished our tea and Dr Hao packed up his teaware and began to assist Dr Zhang in prepping the cuttings for long range transport back to Athens, Georgia. Afterwords, we thanked Mr Thornton for his time and the opportunity to explore Caw Caw.

After Dr Zhang, Dr Hao, and I went to lunch, we went to my house. At the house, I showed both of them what remains from this year’s propagation of Clemson Coastal Pinehurst tea hedge. It was unfortunate that we could not go Clemson Coastal during the visit. I did show Dr Zhang and Dr Hao cultivar “A-7” from that group. “A-7” is an excellent cultivar for flavor to make black tea with, regardless if your goal is to serve it hot or cold. Out of 180 cuttings of 3 cultivars each this third and final propagation attempt for the year, as of today, I only have remaining 2 cuttings of “A-7” and 1 rooted cutting of “B-2″.

Dr Zhang and Dr Hao also had the opportunity to inspect my selections from Caw Caw propagated from the Spring of 2017. I was surprised when Dr Hao mentioned how two selections would be good for black tea and another was for Oolong.

Shortly afterwords, I had the honor of sharing something special with Dr Zhang and Dr Hao, the Cassina/Yaupon tea. I prepared long cured leaf and presented the beverage. I insisted that we allow it to cool slightly. I had only recently perfected the long curing process and they were some of the first people to try it outside of my normal focus group of tea drinkers, who provide me with feedback on product development.

During that time we allowed it to cool we all took turns discussing various aspects of tea cultivation, process, and application of various science and technology. As far as their response to the Cassina tea, well, I could tell that they were experiencing an ancient beverage that is an equal to Camellia tea. Not so much a rival, but something as equally good.

I told them of why there is two names for the beverage, Yaupon of being of Catawabian origin and Cassina being of a Muskogean origin, very much like how there is the two stories of how the natives became aware of the beverage. The Catawabian/Yaupon story was of the sick man, who traveled through out the Catawabian nation (upper half of South Carolina and lower half of North Carolina) visiting all the medicine men. The sick man had travel the whole nation was still sick. He prayed to the Creator to be cured and fell into a deep sleep along side a river. In his sleep the Creator came to him in a dream and told him,”when you wake up, you will be resting under a tree that is medicine you need, make a beverage from it and you will be cured.” The sick man awoke under a tree, made a beverage from the leaves and in time was cured as he continued to make and drink the beverage, sharing the great knowledge with all the medicine men of the nation.

The other story of Muskogean origin is also called the “White Drink” story. The Muskogean natives migrated to the southeast. Once they reached their final resting place, they were approached by people who already lived there.  The people already living there shared the “White drink” with them and said,”put down your bloody tomahawk (weapon) and cleanse your head, heart, and soul and live in peace.” While this is a folklore story, there was one clan of the Choctaw people, which is a division of wider range of Muskogean people, that was referred to as the “Blue Holly” clan.

As it was getting late into the day, Dr Hao wanted to present me with some gifts. The first gift was a pressed disc of scented white tea from the tea engineering lab at Fuijan University. The next gift was some samples of various oolong teas.

Zhilong and Fuding White tea presentation

So the next few blogs will be about me sampling them and giving them you my perspective of each. I also had some gifts for Dr Hao, first was a book about southeastern landscape plants by Dr Gordon Halfacre and secondly was long cured Cassina tea.

Cassina presentation Joshua Zhilong

As we said our goodbyes to one another, it was made very clear to Dr Zhang and Dr Hao, that I look forward to many more conversations, visits, and exchange of information and ideas, because we are all brothers in the cup of peace and their visit in many ways closed a circle in the history of tea between China and the United States yet opened a new circle, a very long peaceful prosperous one.

I could not ask for anything else or more from the visit and I am very thankful for it. Only a life time of learning more and sharing more awaits. I do look forward to visiting and potentially attending Fuijian Agriculture and Forestry University in the future. I hope to have them visit again, and I cannot wait to visit them in Athens, Georgia in November.

While this may seem like a visit between tea people, I can promise you that in time the effects will be felt around the tea world. Again, I am so humbled and thankful for it. I can say that the People’s Republic of China has the right guy to usher in advancement in their tea culture, it is Dr Hao. Thank you again my friends and until next time,  I hope you achieve success in your projects.

Photo Credits: Dr Zhang and Dr Hao









One Comment Add yours

  1. tonytomeo says:

    It is fascinating that tea is still being cultivated and developed in that region. I would expect it to be more prevalent here, but it is not. The only tea production that I am aware of in San Jose and Saratoga is in arboretum gardens, and it is Japanese tea.


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