It was time to prune back the ornamental Camellias, and clean up the dead flowers and fallen leaves. My mother-in-law (from China) was coming over for brunch, just before my day of gardening. As she passed by my waiting basket and hedge clippers, she asked: Was I planning to make some tea?
According to her, the fussy-flowered Japanese cultivar (Camellia japonica), which is typically grown as a garden ornamental, also has leaves that can be used to make tea, just as the leaves of the regular “tea” making varietal (Camellia sinensis) – only somewhat less flavorful.
I had my doubts. But after verifying by web-research that Camellia leaves are not considered toxic, and can, indeed be used to make tea, I set out to harvest some shiny, waxy new leaves for an experiment in tea making!
I harvested one large cookie-rack-full of baby Camellia leaves, and let them wither indoors overnight, covered with a towel. By lucky coincidence, our weather for the next few days was expected to be in the upper 70s and low 80s, which would allow for fermenting at room temperature. The process I attempted to follow was one which I obtained from the University of Hawaii’s Cooperative Extension Service: Tea Processing (PDF downloaded from U. of Hawaii). The following morning, I wrapped the withered Camellia leaves in a couple of layers of cheese cloth, and kneaded and crumbled them, as the handout suggested. Then, I spread them in a thin layer on damp paper towel, and covered them with a wet towel, and set them in the sun to ferment in the heat.
The result was about 1/2 cup of what looked and smelled like a mild black tea.
The next morning, I brewed a few cups of tea with it, to serve to the family with breakfast. Much to my surprise, it yielded a very respectable cup of oolong-stye tea!
I believe the main trouble I had in getting my desired black tea out of the process was that we live in a very dry area, and so, while I set the tea out in the warm sun (covered with damp towel) to let it ferment in the heat, the towel dried out too quickly, and the dry heat stopped the fermentation before the full flavor had been achieved. Next time, I will try re-wetting the towels periodically, to keep it fermenting for a few hours longer, before allowing the dry heat to stop the process.
I had for a long time regretted my attachment to coffee and tea, and other culinary staples that I thought must be transported half-way around the world, with the associated carbon-footprint attached. Now, it seems, all I need to do is plant a few more Camellia bushes (probably sinensis variety), and snip my own leaves for a local-harvested tea supply. It sure makes pruning “chores” a whole lot more palatable!