As cold rain beats down, I’m puttering in my little unheated greenhouse, where my new stash of caffeine plants is sheltering from the latest wild wind storm. The tea camellias should do fine once they get planted outside, but keeping the coffee plant happy will take more thought. There’s also a young Yaupon shrub as well as a start of Yerba Mate, both which can get large, so regular pruning is definitely in their future. This intriguing collection is part of my experiment with growing my own caffeine sources (especially given increasing concerns about food security; I need my tea!!!). All around the world, people have been brewing herbal and plant-based pick-me-ups since time immemorial. Though many of these remain regional specialties, some have become nearly universal. A remarkable percentage of humans are hooked on coffee or tea, the vast bulk of which are grown in tropical or subtropical regions. For most of us West Coast folks, growing tea presents few challenges, and Yaupon will do fine, but both coffee and Yerba Mate will require some seasonal protection.
While ornamental Asian camellias such as C. japonica and C. sasanqua are grown for showy spring or winter flowers and are not suitable for tea brewing, tea camellias are bred for flavorful foliage and bloom is discouraged. Due to its enormous popularity, the tea shrub, Camellia sinensis, has thousands of regional and selected forms of varying size, vigor, and leaf-shape, each with its own distinctive flavor. Tea camellias prefer mild, moist climates and thrive in Zone 8-9, though some are hardy in zones 6-10 and a few need winter protection in colder climates. Tea shrubs are pruned in winter to maintain size and shape, and harvested through the summer months. Frequent leaf “plucking” in summer keeps tea camellias bushy and productive; on tea plantations, tea plants are continually shaped and harvested and flowering is prevented, as it diverts energy from foliage production.
Keeping Tea Plants Happy
One of my new plant pals is a miniature tea shrub called Brew-Tea-Ful that remains just over a foot tall, perfect for containers and small gardens. Another is a slender-leaved Taiwanese form that tolerates shade and is used to make Formosa Oolong tea. Large or small, tea camellias prefer even soil moisture and very good drainage, so plant in berms where soil is heavy. Fertilize lightly in summer and mulch with mature compost to boost natural flavors. Treat any insect issues with soapy water or Neem oil; never use toxic pesticides on tea camellias, as the residues will contaminate the tea(!). Winter pruning keeps tea shrubs bushy and compact, with many new shoots for frequent summer plucking.
Harvesting tea involves removing removing one or two of the top leaves and/or the top bud from each shoot. New shoots will form from tiny buds in the leafy “armpits”, providing several flushes of new growth each year. Tea leaves are harvested in the morning, then washed, dried and withered until supple. For white and green teas, dried leaves are steamed over simmering water for up to 1 minute or dry-roasted in a heavy skillet for about 2 minutes. Finally, the leaves are spread in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and baked at 250 degrees F. for 20 minutes to dry completely and prevent molding. Black teas are dried, then crushed or rolled until they turn coppery to promote fermentation, then dried again for up to 3 days before the final baking.
Coffee Leaf Teas
Arabica coffee is an understory plant that prefers warm, shady, humid places. Topping out at about 6 feet, coffee can be treated as a large houseplant or grown outside in summer and overwintered indoors. Indoors or outside, coffee plants prefer bright, indirect light and need shade from direct sun. Coffee leaf tea is my new afternoon favorite, refreshing and mildly sweet, without the bitterness of brewed coffee no matter how long it’s steeped. Coffee leaf tea has about half the caffeine black tea, and blends deliciously with cinnamon and cardamom pods, or rose petals or jasmine blossoms. After coffee leaves are picked, washed, and dried on screens or racks, they are lightly toasted in a dry skillet, then oven-roasted at 200 degrees F. for 20 minutes to dry completely. Coffee leaf tea is made by steeping the dried leaves in hot water to taste. I keep mine going for hours, refreshing the hot water now and then, and it always tastes lovely.
Yaupon & Yerba Mate
These holly relatives have been used as traditional teas and tonics since time immemorial. Native throughout the Southern US, Yaupon has dainty, toothed leaves with a warm, earthy flavor similar to a robust green tea. Naturally caffeinated, the tea falls between coffee and black tea in caffeine levels, and also offers theobromine, a natural anti-anxiety chemical also found in chocolate. Yaupon thrives in USDA zones 7b-9, tolerating many soils types and conditions from part sun to shade. Naturally shapely, it takes pruning well and needs no fertilizer other than an annual compost mulch, which boosts flavor. Without pruning, it may reach 10 – 20 feet tall and 8-12 feet wide, but takes heavy winter pruning well. Yaupon tea is made by steeping the dried leaves in boiling water for 3-5 minutes.
Yerba Mate is a South American holly relative that needs a warm, humid climate and in areas with seasonal temperature swings, is best grown indoors or at least overwintered inside. It’s a tree, so winter pruning is required to keep it from getting sky-high. The slender leaves can be harvested for tea year round, and offer a bracing, moderately caffeinated brew (less than coffee, more than black tea). Dry-roast Yerba Mate foliage in a skillet for 1-3 minutes, depending on the depth of flavor preferred. Once roasted, the leaves are crushed, spread in a rimmed baking sheet and baked at 225 degrees F. for 20 minutes. Once dried and cooled, Yerba Mate may be crushed further with a rolling pin, then brewed by steeping in hot (not boiling) water for 3-5 minutes.