The co-founder of Camellia Forest Tea Gardens has written a how-to guide for harvesting tea
By Anna Louise Pickens
Although she loves growing and making tea, teaching others about the process is Christine Parks’ true passion. She founded Camellia Forest Tea Gardens in 2006 with her husband, David Parks, and has dedicated herself to educating the Chapel Hill community about harvesting and preparing tea ever since. After visiting a tea farm in Oregon with her friend and co-author Susan Walcott, the pair was inspired to write a book sharing their knowledge. Their book, “Grow Your Own Tea: The Complete Guide to Cultivating, Harvesting, and Preparing,” hits shelves in September. Christine is currently in the process of arranging partnerships with local bookstores, and the guide will also be sold through online retailers and at the Camellia Forest Nursery website. Today, I chatted with Christine about the tea industry, her experience authoring the book and her personal tea preferences.
What is your background in gardening? Can you tell us a bit about Camellia Forest Tea Gardens and Tea Flower Research?
My husband’s family started Camellia Forest Nursery over 40 years ago in Chapel Hill. And they are a special, nationally known camellia nursery that has a really wide variety of camellias. A lot of people don’t recognize that tea is a camellia. It’s actually the most commonly grown camellia in the world.
When I visited China for the first time [in 2005], when we adopted our daughter, I had some very amazing tea, and I also learned more about the history of tea growing. It all of a sudden clicked, and I fell in love with it. I just thought, “I’m going to be learning about this for the rest of my life and stay interested and engaged the entire time.” There’s so much to know: the biology, the health aspects, the gardening aspects, the processing.
Then what ended up happening was Tea Flower Research became sort of a home for my husband and I – a little bit separate from the nursery – to begin supporting this idea of cataloging all the tea plants that we have from all over the world. It was supporting the idea of building a tea garden here in Chapel Hill that would be an educational resource and also a biorepository for this unique collection of plants that we have.
What made you decide to write a book?
I had an experience where my friend and I were touring some tea gardens. We talked about how wonderful it would be to be able to share information in a written form. There are people who really want to know how to grow tea more than wanting to know that it’s being grown. They want to know how to do it themselves. And I thought, “You know, this is what I do in my classes every day.” I was always making up handouts and trying to squeeze more information in them. And I just thought, let’s write this up. I mean, I love making tea, but I get excited when I get to share this with people.
So that was what was behind the book. And I hoped that it would answer more questions, but I have later come to realize that actually by raising people’s awareness, it’s going to introduce more questions. So, it’s part of my lifelong journey because now we’re working on beyond-the-book content so that we can put together more advanced topics for people who want to know a little bit more than is on the pages of the book.
What was the writing process like? Did you learn new things about tea?
There are two main things that I learned. The first thing I learned during that research process is that it’s not as easy for people to grow tea as I thought it would be. I learned that it is really important for people to learn to plan ahead, to think about the future before they actually put a plant in the ground.
And then the other thing that I learned a lot about that I’m still very, very interested in myself is the science behind the processing. It’s a little bit like cooking. There are certain rules that go into how you can go from one leaf to a green tea or white tea or black tea. How does that progress, and what are some of the important things that people can control? Not in a factory, but in their kitchen – what do you need to do in order to do it properly? So, I did a lot of research to do this, and I’ve been working on this myself for years, and I will continue working on this. And I’m just enjoying that process. There are a lot of sensory experiences, in deciding to go to the next step and things like that. And that’s where it goes from being a craft, the craft of tea making, to like the art.
What are the general health benefits behind tea?
One of the things people don’t know about tea a lot of times is that there’s caffeine in it. A lot of people will be like, “Well, it’s less caffeine than coffee and that’s why I like it. It’s calming.” It’s actually calming because it has a special amino acid in it called L-theanine. You can actually buy it at health stores, and it’s been proven to reduce the stress response. When you have a cup of tea, it’s like people feel both alert and more relaxed at the same time. I think one of the bigger health benefits, if you ask me. There are a lot of antioxidants in tea as well. But the immediate health benefits of drinking tea is that relaxed, alert feeling.
Why do you think people should grow their own tea? How do you think growing tea can help people during the COVID-19 pandemic?
First of all, this time with COVID-19, as far as I’m concerned, is going to extend for quite a while. So, tea is a long-term commitment when you start growing it. What we’ve found actually is that a lot of people are drawn to their gardens and they’re interested in being a little bit more self-sufficient as well. So, growing your own tea offers that chance. It doesn’t mean you won’t ever want to buy coffee at the grocery store or even buy tea, but it’s a feeling like, “Hey, I feel good that I can grow tomatoes in the salad, out of my backyard right there, and that I can pick my own tea.” And I have enough to share with my daughter all winter long, you know? She drinks tea every morning before going to school. Iit feels good to grow your own food.
When you grow your own tea, then you also come up with an appreciation for what really good tea tastes like. A lot of people haven’t had the experience because tea has a shelf life. It’s a little bit like roasting coffee. A lot of the tea that we get in the stores, especially if it’s been processed to be in teabags, is not fresh in the least. So, the taste is so different. In a way, I think it’s a good idea for people to get to know where tea comes from and what it ought to taste like.
Finally, what’s your personal favorite variety of tea and why?
Do you mean tea, the drinks or tea the plant? We actually have a plant that my husband named for me, so I guess that’s got to be my favorite. To drink, I really like the jade oolongs – these are oolongs that are closer to green teas. There are a few things that you do before you steep them and dry them down that creates really delicious floral aromas and tastes.
*Interview has been edited for length and clarity.