I read a plaintive post on a Local Harvest website forum recently. The writer, an aspiring locavore, was looking for a local source of caffeine. Caffeine's a deal breaker for many foodshed purists. Barbara Kingsolver's family was just one among many that exempted coffee (and chocolate) from their experiments in local eating. It's one thing to give up lemons and avocados, but quite another to forgo the daily cup of joe. Tea drinkers have more options, however. Gardeners, at least in zones 7 and above, can try growing their own.
The following article, reprinted with permission from The Columbia News, profiles a backyard tea grower in Bellingham. Cloud Mountain Farm in Everson sells tea camellias.
By J.I. Kleinberg
For someone who decided to cultivate tea in his Columbia-Eldridge garden “just for the fun of it,” Doug Morrison knows an awful lot about tea. Doug and his wife, Norine, both natives of Canada, grew up drinking tea. By the time they moved to Bellingham from Michigan, about 12 years ago, he was already intrigued with the world’s second-most-popular drink (after water), and his curiosity finally took root in a sheltered corner of Norine’s rose garden.
For the uninitiated (myself included), terms such as black tea, green tea, oolong and orange pekoe have a familiar ring. Over a cup of prized Darjeeling (the “champagne of teas”), Doug explained some of the basics. Most true teas, as opposed to infusions of non-tea herbs, are either Indian or Chinese. Black, oolong and green tea are derived from the same plant; the difference is in how the leaves are processed: the more heat and bruising of the leaves, the darker the tea. Black tea is the most “fermented” (technically, oxidized, Doug explains), and green the least, hence retaining most of the plant’s natural antioxidants. Oolong is somewhere in between. Orange pekoe (pronounced “peck-oh”), or OP, is not a kind of tea at all, but refers to whole-leaf teas. Broken OP means smaller pieces, and “fannings” smaller yet. “Dust” refers to the smallest and least flavorful particles, and it’s Dust that is used in tea bags, I learn to my dismay.
In his own garden, along with a handsome “Northwest tea house” crafted of Western Red Cedar, Doug has three small Chinese (Sinensis) tea bushes. The largest, perhaps three feet tall, is about five years old and last year yielded its first harvest: 20 grams of tea.
Broadleaf evergreens in the camellia family, the bushes are glossy and green even on a gray January day. Acid-loving and in need of protection from the wind, the tea plants will produce inconspicuous flowers in the spring and
many sets of two leaves plus one end-bud ready for picking in May or June.
There’s more to tell: scented teas, such as jasmine and lychee; clipper ships racing holds full of tea round the Cape of Good Hope; porcelain, china and silver tea service; the opium wars; the “rumble, rattle and roll” of the water in the heating kettle; the origin of tea bags — Doug Morrison is a fount of
information. Perhaps one day, over another cup of tea, he’ll talk about his decades-long interest in mushrooms — but that would be another story.