As a small-town emergencyroom physician in the Low-countryand the recentlychristened medical andhealth writer for magazine, I felt it my dutyto visit the Charleston Tea Plantation.If you have not had the opportunity tovisit the area, Lowcountry simplyrefers to the coastal region of SouthCarolina and Georgia. At best,Charleston and its surrounding areasare genteel, refined, and laid back. Inthe immortal words of George Gershwin,"Summertime and the living iseasy." At its worst, when the weather ishot and humid, it's hard on us southerners,downright unbearable for ournorthern visitors, and positively the bestenvironment for tea growing.
Where It All Began
The drive was fabulous; a kaleidoscopeof shade thrown on the trail byoverhanging Spanish moss-drapedoak trees, so typical of Charlestonback roads. What makes this plantationso special is the fact that it is theonly tea-growing operation in the continentalUnited States. The origins ofthe plantation—its development, itsowners, and the tea production—areeach stories in their own right.
Calling ahead, I was promised aninterview with the owner. Upon myarrival at the plantation on WadmalawIsland, I was ushered back to a corneroffice in the main building of thefacility. At the doorway, a burley oldsalt of a fellow greeted us. Not quitethe image one entertains when toldyou are about to meet a professionallytrained, third-generation tea-taster.William Hall, the co-owner of theplantation (he is partnered with theBigelow Tea Company), is a commandingfigure, with long finger-combedlocks of hair and well-tannedskin from days in the field. Bill greetedme with a warm smile, putting me atease. He took a bit of time out of hisbusy day for an impromptu interviewabout this locally produced tea,, the history and businessof tea in America, and whatmakes the plantation's AmericanClassic Tea stand out.
The history of the Charleston TeaPlantation goes back to a tea grower bythe name of Dr. Charles U. Sheppard. In1888 he established the Pinehurst TeaPlantation near Summerville, SC. ThePinehurst plantation produced award-winningteas for many years. In fact, atthe 1904 World's Fair their oolong teatook home first-place awards.
Upon his death in 1915, Dr.Sheppard's plantation became dormantand the tea plants flourished unattended.In 1963, the Lipton Tea companyset up a research site on WadmalawIsland and transplanted some of theoriginal tea plants from Dr. Sheppard'sgarden to their new site, a former potatofarm. Lipton maintained thisresearch facility due to fears that thethird-world, tea-producing countrieswould not be politically stable enoughto ensure a consistent supply of tealeaves to US markets. It remained inoperation until 1987 when Bill Halland Mack Fleming acquired it fromLipton. They turned the research facilityinto a working tea-producing farmuntil 2003. The Bigelow Tea Companythen partnered up with Bill to purchasethe plantation at auction in 2003. Aftera 3-year renovation of the plantationby Bigelow, it opened in January 2006for tours and full production. Thebrand American Classic Tea is predominantlymade with tea grown from thisplantation. This tea, besides beinghome grown, is free of pesticides andsynthetic chemicals necessary in othertea-growing regions. Fortunately forthe American tea grower, there are noknown indigenous insects or opportunisticflora that infest or threaten theplants, unlike Asia.
From Plantation to Teapot
The tea plants are propagated bymeans of cloning plant cuttings. Aftergrowing for 3 to 4 years, they areready to give up their top shoots forthe production of the tea we drink. Ilearned that the tea leaves are harvestedevery 15 days. To keep the cost ofthe harvest competitive, the plantationmechanized the harvesting process bycustomizing a tobacco harvester.Lovingly called the "Green Giant," this machine keeps labor costs down.
Some 5000 pounds of leaves are harvesteda day. Once the clippings reachthe factory, they are loaded on amachine that blows warm dry air to drythe leaves. From there the leaves moveinto a rotovane, where they are groundin order to rupture the leaf cells so oxidationcan occur. For black tea theleaves are allowed to oxidize for 50minutes. Oolong tea requires only 15minutes of oxidation. After this process,the leaves are dried at 250 degreesFahrenheit for a half-hour. Then theyare placed through sieves to removestock and fiber. For every 5 pounds oftea leaves harvested from the field, thisprocess yields 1 pound of ready-to-steeptea. Finally, the leaves of AmericanClassic Tea are sealed and packaged,awaiting shipment to retailers and, ultimately,the hot water of your teapot.
A trip to the plantation is a funlearning experience as well as a chanceto enjoy the serenity of the gardens. Afew hours sipping freshly brewed teaand walking the grounds will meltaway the stress built up from long daysat work delivering health care.
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