I’m a tea drinker. Every job I go to provides coffee for the participants. Hunting down hot water for my own tea bags is not always welcome, and I often get the evil eye from the receptionist for asking if they have any. So when we visited my mother-in-law in Charleston a couple years ago I took a little solo side trip to Wadmalaw Island and the Charleston Tea Plantation.
Owned by the Bigelow Tea Company, the plantation grows tea sold under the brand name American Classic Tea. Their gift shop hosts a tea tasting buffet of nineteen different types of teas and flavors. I tried every one of them while waiting for the next Trolley Tour.
A fire-engine red trolley took us tea enthusiasts on a fun and educational tour of the beautiful plantation. Learning the history of tea growth and production was fascinating. We saw every stage from the young plants in the greenhouses to the harvest ripe fields. The vibrant green bushes were planted close together so new growth shot straight up—which is how the tender new tea leaves were harvested. Giant tractors with long cutting arms haircut the new growth at just the right moment for the type of tea being made. I learned that green tea and black tea come from the same plant. It’s the processing afterward that makes the difference.
The Charleston Tea Plantation is the only tea plantation in the United States. In 1799 a French botanist brought the first tea plant to the States as a gift for a plantation owner. Over the next 200 years multiple companies and individuals tried growing tea in numerous areas in the South without success. In 1963 the Lipton Company bought one of the failing tea plantations and moved it out to Wadmalaw Island where they researched the plants for twenty-five years.
Horticulture professor, Mack Fleming, who was involved in the research, teamed up with Bill Hall, a third generation tea tester from England, and purchased the plantation from Lipton. They started the successful Charleston Tea Plantation in 1987. Though the R.C. Bigelow Company now owns the plantation, Bill Hall keeps it thriving with distribution throughout the United States.
I have fond memories of our time in Charleston, but the highlight of the trip was immersing myself in the beauty and culture of tea at the Charleston Tea Plantation. Now when I sip my hot savory liquid, I know where it comes from.