Cuppa Your Own

Tea is a natural in the Sandhills

By Jan Leitschuh

Dark, wet days brighten considerably with a “cuppa,” warding off chilly winds and damp spirits. The Brits have long known the restorative power of tea.

I had a chance to hike the Great Glen Way in Scotland a few years back — we did it in a civilized fashion, stopping at bed-and-breakfasts for the night. Always, waiting for us, was a tea setup in the room, and always, we made a cup after a long day of walking. The tea never failed to work its magic reviving tired hikers.

While we associate tea with the United Kingdom, it actually originated in the Far East, as in “all the tea in China.” Few realize the tea plant also grows well in many parts of North Carolina. Old plantations in South Carolina are often found to have a few old plants. The gardens here at Weymouth sport a healthy specimen, too. 

Surprised?  Yet no one is surprised that camellias live in the Sandhills.

Tea does indeed come from a camellia plant, and that variety is Camellia sinensis, the tea camellia.

Seems like a kitchen gardener could have a little fun with tea.  A few years back I bought a plant on a visit to Charleston, South Carolina, and installed it in my yard. When I had the good fortune to meet enthusiast and prominent North Carolina tea grower Christine Parks last month, I pumped her for further instructions.

The owner of the garden club mecca Camellia Forest Tea Gardens, Parks grows her artisanal teas near Chapel Hill.  Delving in after first exposure, the more Parks learned, the more she was hooked. She was seized with the notion of teas, and growing the tea plants. Here, she thought, “was a passion that would keep me learning for the rest of my life, growing the plant, processing the leaves, the history and culture. More importantly, I just love working with the leaf, the aromas of the leaf — from the plants warming in the sunshine and the leaves drying.”

Popular in springtime for tours, Camellia Forest Tea Gardens has about half an acre in tea, “with hundreds of plants and many different varieties collected from all over the world, especially cold-hardy varieties that do well in our climate and throughout the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic states,” says Parks. 

A prominent North Carolina tea expert, Parks offers hands-on workshops. “(Husband) David’s family has been growing tea in their Chapel Hill garden for more than 35 years,” she says. “We started this current garden in 2006 to test new varieties and to provide a resource for gardeners who were interested in growing tea.”

No bright, showy blooms for the tea camellia. While its flowers are pale, small and not particularly showy, its green matter is highly valued. A bushy evergreen shrub, sometimes even a small tree, this plant’s leaves and leaf buds are harvested to produce tea. From this species of camellia comes white tea, green tea, oolong, black and pu-erh teas. The plant matter is processed differently to produce varying levels of oxidation, which gives us those different types of tea to drink. 

Camellias prefer Zones 7-9, and here in the Sandhills, we are 8a. Tea plants are best in semi-shade, though commercial growers use full sun and drip irrigation. A half-day of sun is probably ideal. They love sandy, slightly acid soil — sound like any place we know? — with lots of organic matter, similar to azaleas.  Mulch and regular water are essential to helping a new plant get started. 

Fifty inches of rainfall a year, or more, with a little help in dry times, is preferred. The shrubs make screens or background plants, and the plant is mildly resistant to damage by deer. They grow a strong taproot, and are unaffected by strong winds. The small flowers are a useful source of pollen to support bees over the winter.

Tea plants will grow into a tree if left undisturbed, but cultivated plants are pruned to waist height for ease of plucking. Fertilize lightly in spring with a balanced fertilizer, but if more growth is desired, don’t over-fertilize — more water will bring on new growth. Skip harvest the first few years to give the plant a chance to establish itself.

The young spring growth that the bush produces in “flushes” is prized for tea, and this is the season that draws the garden clubs and other visitors to Parks’ tiny tea farm. These “flushes” are harvested for processing. Plucking stimulates new growth in a few weeks. Fresh leaves contain about 4 percent caffeine, as well as other mildly stimulating compounds, including theobromine. The young, light green leaves are harvested for tea production — look for the short white hairs on the underside. 

Home gardeners picking for the first time might aim for the first two leaves and the unopened bud at the end of a twig. Older leaves are deeper green. Different leaf ages produce different tea qualities, since their chemical compositions are different. Usually, the tip (bud) and the first two to three leaves are harvested for processing. 

A palm-full of fresh shoots should yield a cup of tea, when dried. It takes many shoots to make a pound of tea. 

White tea may be the easiest to start with, since it is the least processed. Harvest one bud, or a leaf and a bud. Choose an area with good circulation, warm temperatures and about 65 percent humidity, explains Parks’ informative website, Let the leaves wither in the shade, until they look like they are starting to dry out, then complete the drying in an oven with very low temperatures — 170-200 degrees. This might take 15-20 minutes, so stay close. Store in an airtight container for up to a year.

Green tea is also worth trying. “The least oxidized tea, leaves are heated to inactivate enzymes that transform tea catechins into theaflavins and thearubigins. These components are part of what contribute to the unique flavors of green versus black and oolong,” according to Harvest two leaves and a bud in the morning, and spread out on a tray with good circulation. Heat the leaves for about 3-5 minutes using either steam (a vegetable steamer will do) or by stirring the fresh leaves in a dry pan until they are moist and hot. Depending on how much you have, roll the leaves in a clean cloth (or your hands for smaller amounts) to release the juices. Dry in an oven at a low temperature, as with white tea.

Parks still finds the process captivating: “I was hooked by the aromas of the leaf — fresh in the sunshine and as it went through processing to tea.”

Processing the tea leaf promotes the development of new chemical compounds which alter its taste as well as its properties.  It can be difficult to generalize by type of tea as to the health benefits of each, and there is some overlap. 

Over 4,000 years ago, tea was drunk strictly as medicine, to both stimulate and detoxify. Gradually, it became popular as a delicious, bitter beverage consumed for its own sake. The health benefits still exist, with today’s science validating its original use. Besides comfort, the leaves have been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat asthma, acting as a bronchodilator. Due to its antioxidant powers, tea is being investigated for benefits in relation to cancer prevention, weight loss, strengthening the immune system, preventing cell mutations and in the treatment of cardiovascular diseases. 

The best time to visit the garden, says Parks, is when tea is growing from early May through October. With a nominal charge for tea tastings, along with more formal workshops by request, Camellia Forest Tea Gardens offers tours by appointment for groups and individuals. Two popular free open house events in late May and October highlight the tea garden.

“We love to learn, and share our experiences growing tea in North Carolina,” says Parks.  PS

Parks can be reached by email at, through the website at or on Facebook (Camellia Forest Tea Gardens). To order tea plants, contact the nursery directly at  

Jan Leitschuh is a local gardener, avid eater of fresh produce and co-founder of the Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative.

New Year, New You

Time to ditch the toxins

By Karen Frye

The human body is remarkable. When you realize how much is going on inside — the synchronicity of the organ functions and systems — you’ll see everything works together like a well-oiled machine.

The body renews itself entirely every seven years. Some of the organs, such as the liver, renew themselves every four to five months. Our skin renews every seven days. New cells are formed to replace the old ones. Our bodies are capable of healing and renewing with no effort on our part, though our world today makes the work a lot more challenging.

Environmental toxins, herbicides, chemicals in water, caffeine, alcohol and prescription medications contribute to toxic overloads. Detoxing is not a recent fad. People have been doing various forms of detoxifying for hundreds of years. There are many methods. It is good to find a health care professional to guide you, and if you are on medications, discuss your plans with your health care provider first. There are changes you can make in your life that will give beneficial results with a little effort and willpower.

It is best to change your bad habits permanently into better ones, which may take time. You might just notice that you are feeling so much better through the detox process that you may keep some changes as part of your daily lifestyle.

Prepare yourself for your detox:

Set your mind to succeed. You won’t starve, and your body will appreciate the attention you are devoting to being healthier. Create a journal and record your thoughts and feelings so you can go back and read them later.

Clear your kitchen of the foods you want to avoid so you aren’t tempted. Remove all processed foods, sweets, soft drinks, etc.

Stock your pantry and refrigerator with seasonal fruits and vegetables, preferably organic. Have berries in the freezer to make smoothies.

Plan your schedule so you can get to bed at a reasonable time, and get enough sleep. Sleeping well helps your organs recharge, and assists the elimination of toxins.

Set aside a little time to exercise. Sweat is the body’s way of releasing toxins from the cells. I love Bikram yoga. Not only do you sweat, but the postures stimulate the glands and organs so they function optimally.

Drink lemon water with a pinch of Celtic or Himalayan salt upon rising. Use fresh squeezed lemon juice with warm or hot water. This is something that you might consider doing every day even after you finish your detox. And while we are talking about water, you must increase your water intake to at least 90 ounces. One of the most important functions of drinking a lot of water is how it helps the kidneys and liver do their job flushing toxins.

Replace your morning coffee with a cup of green tea. Matcha green tea contains the highest amount of antioxidants, and is more flavorful than typical green tea. Drink herbal teas throughout the day; dandelion and red clover are my recommendations.

Eliminate red meat, and if you must eat animal protein, choose free-range chicken, or wild salmon (in moderation). Try to eat mostly fruits and vegetables, especially dark, leafy green salads.

Fiber is important to keep things moving. Chia seeds are an excellent source. They are not only high in fiber, but loaded with omega-3 fatty acid and high in antioxidants. You can add chia seeds to almost anything.

There are “detox kits” that contain herbs to help your body in the process. Please keep in mind that you can do a lot on your own by cleaning up your diet.

You can design your detox for a week or longer. You might find that you really like the way you feel. Often you will sleep better, and have more energy and stamina throughout the day. Your skin will become radiant, and your eyes will be clearer. Digestion will be improved, and your immune system will be stronger.

Whatever you do this year, set yourself up for success. Think healthy thoughts, eat healthy foods, exercise, and most of all, be happy PS

Karen Frye is the owner and founder of Natures Own and teaches yoga at the Bikram Yoga Studio.

Kathryn & Hayden Schertzer


Photographer: Heather Gunter Photography Wedding Coordinator: Bailey Grinde, Pinehurst Resort

Think a Christmas-themed reception at the Carolina Hotel is enough fodder for a made-for-TV movie? Try saying your vows at a church where your family has been members for more than 200 years. Kathryn walked down the aisle of First Baptist Church in Rockingham to “Edelweiss,” a song her mother sang to her nightly as a child. Through tears, her father promised only to share her, not give her away. And a matron of honor gave a toast that ended with the 20-member bridal party donning oversized panda heads and flooding the dance floor for an epic performance. The reception was a celebratory end to a six-month-long engagement that started when Hayden popped the question in Wilmington, where the two met when Hayden was in the Marines.

Ceremony: First Baptist Church of Rockingham | Reception: Cardinal Ballroom, Carolina Hotel | Videographer: Ron McLaughlin | Dress: Martina Liana | Shoes: Nina | Bridesmaids: Bill Levkoff | Groomsmen: Vera Wang | Flowers: Hillside Florist and Jack Hadden Floral & Event Design | Wedding Rings: Kay Jewelers | Hair: Creative Hair Salon | Makeup: Beauty by Becca | Catering & Cake: Pinehurst Resort | Entertainment: DJ from Five Star Entertainment