Teacology

Tea, with an Ecological Approach


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Locally Grown Tea and Herbal Tea – Sustainability, Ecology, Economics

This is an update and rewrite of an original article, Locally Grown Tea, which was published Nov. 23, 2009, on my tea blog.

There are a wide variety of issues relating the topic of sustainability and tea.  RateTea’s page on sustainability and tea summarizes most of these issues. Topics like fair trade, organic certification, and composting are ones that most people in the tea world are familiar with, and that a fair amount has already been written about. This post is about a different issue, one that people in Western countries don’t think about much, which is the topic of locally grown tea.

People don’t talk much about locally grown tea in the U.S. and Western Europe. It’s generally assumed that tea grows in warm, tropical climates and needs to be imported in these countries. But this is not strictly true; as I will show below, the reasons tea is imported are a complex combination of economic, historical, and ecological factors. The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, is a relatively hardy plant, and while it generally likes a humid subtropical climate and can also be grown in humid tropical regions, it can be grown farther north than many people realize.  Many of the famous tea-growing regions, such as the Darjeeling district of India, or nearby Nepal, are located at a high altitude where the temperature can actually get fairly cold and sometimes drop below freezing in the winter.

The zones where tea cultivation is commercial feasible are also restricted by the humidity and rainfall; tea likes a wet climate, especially during the growing season.  Most of the regions important in tea production have a strongly seasonal rainfall pattern, such as the Asian monsoon in India and China, and the bimodal seasonal rainfall pattern characteristic of Kenya.

The following map shows the world’s humid subtropical zones, where most of the historical tea-growing regions are located.  Tea can also be grown in a few other climate zones too, including humid tropical climates, tropical wet-dry areas, and moderate maritime climates:

A map of the world's humid subtropical regions

A map of the world’s humid subtropical climate zones.

This map is taken from Wikimedia Commons; the original was by Peel, M. C., Finlayson, B. L., and McMahon, T. A. (University of Melbourne).  The map is Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

The continental U.S. and western Europe have a number of areas suitable for growing tea.  In the U.S., there are two commercial tea plantations whose tea can be easily purchased:

In addition to these two tea gardens, I have also heard of a small commercial tea operation in Alabama, although I haven’t been able to find its tea for sale anywhere and I do not know if it is still in operation.

Individual gardeners and Botanic gardens have cultivated specimens of the tea plant in much colder regions, on the east coast north to Delaware and perhaps even farther north, and in slightly drier regions as well, like wetter parts of California.  These regions are not necessarily suitable for commercial tea production, however.  The Southeastern U.S. and the Gulf Coast, together with a small moderate region of the Pacific Northwest are probably the only regions in the continental U.S. whose climate would work well for tea cultivation.

Why Locally Grown Tea (or Locally Produced Anything) is Beneficial

Locally grown produce, and locally produced goods,, including tea, promotes sustainability in a number of ways.

  • Reducing transportation costs –  In the case of tea, which is lightweight relative to its price, these costs are not huge, but anyone who has bought tea online and paid the shipping costs knows that they are not negligible.
  • Promoting self-sufficiency – Local production helps make each region less dependent on the outside world.  While complete self-sufficiency is not a goal that everyone wants, some degree of self-sufficiency can be important for stabilizing the world’s economy, by protecting each region from economic fluctuations in other regions.
  • Diversity – Diversity is especially noticeable in tea production, as with any type of food product based on freshly harvested plants.  Because the conditions in which tea (or any plant) is grown, impact its flavor, and because the climate and soil conditions vary from one region to the next, each area will produce tea (and other types of produce or food products) with its own unique characteristics of flavor and aroma.
  • Education and awareness – There is something illuminating and highly educational about being able to physically visit the place where an agricultural product is produced, and see how the plants are grown.  When food plants are grown locally, people can visit the farms and gardens where the plants are grown, and see them for themselves, getting a sort of awareness and knowledge that cannot be obtained from books or the internet alone.

Locally grown tea is not widely available in the U.S. and western Europe, so these benefits are typically not available with respect to tea drinking and purchasing.

Why So Few Locally Grown Teas in Western Countries?

Above I demonstrated that climate alone cannot fully explain why only a negligible amount of tea is grown in the United States.

One tempting answer to this question is in the economics of labor costs, and differences in wealth between different countries.  Most tea is picked by hand, which creates prohibitive labor costs in countries with high wages.  The United States and the countries in Western Europe are very wealthy.  To give you an idea of how wealthy, you can check out the PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) per capita, a measure of the average spending power per person, for various countries.  According to the World Bank’s figures, the United States is about $48K (measured in international dollars), the UK about $35K, and Germany about $39K.  The major tea-growing regions, on the other hand, are much poorer.  India’s PPP is about $3.6K, China’s about $8.5K, and Kenya only $1.7K.

Chart of Purchasing Power Parity

PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) is a relatively good coarse indicator of wealth.

Japan, however, proves that economics cannot explain everything.  Japan’s PPP is on par with most of the countries in Western Europe, yet it is a major tea producer.

I suspect that the other main explanation is historical.  Once an industry gets established in a country and becomes culturally important, the country will find ways to keep that industry thriving  Japan is known for high-quality teas which often fetch a higher price on the market than the bulk black tea that constitutes most of the output of many of the major tea-producing countries.

Locally Grown Herbal Teas – A Closely Related Subject

For some reason, there is often a disconnect, or at least a weaker connection than I would expect, between connoisseurs of true tea, and enthusiasts of herbal teas (or, more technically, herbal infusions or tisanes, a word I don’t use much).  But I am interested in both, and in fact I became interested in tea primarily through herbal teas brewed from plants that I would grow myself in my parent’s garden while I was growing up.  Here is a picture of two of my favorite plants, Apple mint (or Wooly mint, the plant with fuzzy, rounded leaves), and peppermint, the plant with darker, narrower leaves.

Apple mint and peppermint against a wooden fence

Apple mint (Mentha suaveolens) and Peppermint (Mentha × piperita) in the garden at my parents’ house

Herbal teas, encompassing virtually any plant used in tea other than the tea plant, grow virtually everywhere that plants grow, from the tropics to the arctic. Different arrays of plants can be grown in different regions. North America and Western Europe, in particular, are the origins of a countless variety of delicious herbal teas which are familiar in Western traditions, and which are ingredients in the mainstream brands of herbal teas found in a typical supermarket.

Many of these can be easily grown in your own garden or backyard. Many plants used for tea, such as mint, are aggressive in certain climate zones, and can be grown in massive quantities with minimal effort. In addition to growing tea yourself, many herb teas are available locally–not just through small retailers but also from friends and neighbors who might have more gardening space (or expertise) than you do.  And for caffeine lovers, there is even a caffeinated plant, Yaupon, a close relative of the plants used to make Yerba mate and Guayusa, which is native to the Southeastern U.S. and is a good bit more cold-hardy than the tea plant.

If you are a tea enthusiast, but want to support the idea of locally-produced teas for reasons of sustainability, economics, or becoming more connected to and aware of what you are drinking, you would do well to explore the world of herbal infusions.

What do you think?  Please share your feedback with me!

Here are some questions for you; please answer either here, or on a follow-up blog post of your own:

  • For tea drinkers in Western countries: do you ever think about locally-grown tea?  Have you ever tried one of the few teas grown in your own country, or in a Western country?
  • For gardeners: have you ever tried, or would you ever try to grow the tea plant?
  • For tea drinkers: are you also interested in herbal teas?  Would the promise of promoting sustainability and becoming more connected to what you are drinking make you more interested in or more likely to buy, grow, or drink herbal teas?
  • For gardeners: do you grow any herbs that you use to make herbal teas?  What are your favorites?
  • And for anyone: have you ever tried the caffeinated drink made from Yaupon?  I’ve tried Yerba Mate and Guayusa, but not yet Yaupon.