Growing and Processing Camellia Sinensis: A Journey from Plant to Cup

Growing and Processing Camellia Sinensis: A Journey from Plant to Cup

Michele Lillie

Welcome, tea enthusiasts! Today, we embark on an enlightening journey through the captivating world of Camellia Sinensis, the remarkable plant behind our beloved teas. Whether you're a seasoned tea lover or a curious novice, this guide will deepen your appreciation for the intricate process of growing and transforming tea leaves into the delightful cup you savor.

Understanding Camellia Sinensis

Camellia Sinensis, an evergreen shrub native to East Asia, is the source of all traditional teas, including black, green, oolong, and white. Although not prominent in the US, depending on the cultivar and your climate, you might be able to grow it in your backyard. Even if you do not harvest the tea leaves, it is a pretty plant sporting mildly fragrant white flowers in the fall to early winter. It is also ideal for hummingbirds, bees and other pollinators. 

Climate and Soil Requirements

  • Climate: Prefers a tropical or subtropical climate, hardiness zones of 7 to 9. If you do not live in such an area, you might want to try growing it in a container or a greenhouse. It definitely needs protection from frost.

  • Soil: Well-drained, slightly acidic soil with a pH between 5 and 6 is ideal. The tea plants will acidify the soil around them. If they are planted too dense, the soil may become too acidic. Ensure there is sufficient room between plants.

Planting and Care

  1. Seed or Cutting: Start with seeds or cuttings. These are available through reputable nurseries. Be aware that there are two main cultivars from which to choose. Not all nurseries know the difference, but choosing the one best for your climate could make the difference between success and failure.
    1. Camellia Sinensis Sinensis – this is the more cold-hardy cultivar and is also known as the “small leaf” variety.
    2. Camellia Sinensis Assamica – this one does better in warmer climates and is known as the “large leaf” variety.

  2. Sunlight: Ensure partial to full sunlight. If in full sun, more water will be needed, but you need to ensure the soil is well-drained.

  3. Watering: Regular watering, keeping the soil moist but not waterlogged.

  4. Pruning: This is not a requirement, but pruning can be done for shape and to encourage new growth.

Harvesting Leaves

The real magic begins with harvesting. Most harvesting occurs in the spring, although there may be multiple harvests in milder climates. Regular harvesting encourages further growth.

Processing Tea Leaves

Green Tea

  1. Plucking: When it comes time to harvest from your plant, carefully pick (pluck) the top two leaves and an unopened bud, known as “two leaves & a bud.”
  2. Initial drying: After plucking, place them on a baking sheet and allow them to air dry in the shade for a few hours. This is withering, a crucial stage in tea processing. It helps reduce the water content while encouraging necessary chemical reactions within the tea leaves to kick off. 
  3. Steaming or Pan-Firing: The heat from these actions stops the oxidation process, retaining the green color. Not allowing any oxidation is the hallmark of green tea.
    1. Steaming – Steam on the stove-top for about a minute as you would a pot of vegetables. This method is used for making Japanese green teas, leading to a greener color and a more vegetal flavor.
    2. Pan-firing – Heat in a dry skillet for about two to five minutes. This method is used for most Chinese green teas, resulting in a less vibrant green color and a milder taste with a touch of roasted chestnut flavor.
  4. Rolling: If desired, you may roll the leaves to shape them.
  5. Drying: Finally, they are dried to lock in the flavor and prolong shelf life. Spread the leaves on a baking sheet and bake at 250°F for about 20 minutes.
  6. Brew/store: The leaves are now ready to be brewed or stored in an air-tight container.  

Black Tea

  1. Plucking: same as green tea, although you may add an older leaf or two.
  2. Initial rolling: roll the leaves between your hands and very gently crush them until they start to darken. This starts the oxidation process for which black teas are known.
  3. Withering: Leaves are spread out to wilt and soften. Place them on a baking sheet in a cool location for about three days.
  4. Rolling: Additional gentle rolling will encourage more oxidation.
  5. Drying: This halts oxidation and prepares the leaves for storage. Bake at 250°F for 20 minutes.
  6. Brew/store: Same as with green tea.

Oolong Tea

  • Plucking: same as green tea, although you may add an older leaf or two.
  • Withering: After plucking, spread the leaves out and leave in the sun for 30 minutes to an hour. After this time, bring the leaves inside and allow them to rest for up to 10 hours. Stir and shake (to encourage a small amount of oxidation) every hour.
  • Drying: Bake in 250°F for 20 minutes.
  • Brew/store: Same as with green tea.

White Tea

  • Plucking: Pluck either only the unopened buds or the bud and one or two young leaves.
  • Withering: After plucking, spread the leaves out and leave in the sun for one to three days.
  • Drying: Briefly heat in a skillet for one to two minutes.
  • Brew/store: Same as with green tea.

Brewing Your Tea

The final step is brewing your handcrafted tea. See this blog post for an in-depth look at how to brew different types of tea. Here are some very general principles.

  1. Amount of tea: If the leaves were dried, use a rounded teaspoon for every six ounces of water. A more precise way is to weigh the tea leaves. Use 2.5 to 3 grams of tea for every six ounces of water.
  2. Water Temperature: Use water just under boiling for black tea and dark oolongs. Use slightly cooler for white teas and much cooler (less than 180°F) for green teas.
  3. Steeping Time: Generally, 1-2 minutes for green tea and 3-4 minutes for other types.
  4. Enjoy: Savor the unique flavors and aromas of your home-grown, hand-processed tea.


Growing and processing your own Camellia Sinensis is a gratifying experience that connects you intimately with the age-old traditions of tea making. It’s a journey that not only yields a cup of tea but also a more profound respect and appreciation for this timeless beverage. As you sip your homegrown tea, reflect on the journey from leaf to cup, and may it inspire you to explore further the vast, nuanced world of tea.

At English Tealeaves, we celebrate every step of this beautiful journey. Whether you're just starting or looking to refine your tea-making skills, we're here to guide and support you. Let's continue to explore and savor the diverse and enchanting world of tea together. Cheers to your tea adventure! 🍵

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