The bright blossoms of camellias are a staple of many local gardens. And one variety’s first tender leaves are a staple of one local pantry.
Dr. Bill Luer, of New Orleans, an expert on growing tea for home brewing, raises a white-blooming variety called Camellia sinensis, the source of tea leaves.
Next Sunday, June 7, Luer will share what he knows about growing, harvesting, curing and brewing tea at “Tea Farming in New Orleans.”
It’s part of the Eat Local Challenge, a yearly effort to encourage consumers to eat more food grown close to home.
A pathologist as well as violinist with the New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra, Luer says growing tea is not complicated.
“You grow Camellia sinensis like any other camellia,” Luer said. “I use it as a shrub in my home landscape. In the backyard, I took out a bunch of ligustrum and put in the tea plants instead.”
The shrubs also appear as traditional foundation plantings in front of the Luer home in Uptown New Orleans and along one side of the house as a hedge.
In the rear yard, C. sinensis bushes join Meyer lemon, bay and Arbequina olive trees to create a green screen around the perimeter.
Here and there, Bill’s wife, Melissa, a master gardener, has tucked in squash, peanuts, cucumbers and other edibles.
Bill Luer’s romance with growing plants began in his childhood in Florida with a vegetable garden he tended and continued when he moved to New Orleans in 1972 to attend medical school.
“When I realized that tea came from a type of camellia, I did some research and ended up buying a few plants from Camellia Forest Nursery in North Carolina back in 2003,” he said. “Now I have 35 plants and six or seven varieties, including small leaf, large leaf, Guangzhou, Tea Breeze, Sochi, Darjeeling and Louisiana.”
The Louisiana variety was given to Luer by Jason McDonald, founder of the Great Mississippi Tea Company in Brookhaven, Mississippi.
There are just over two dozen tea plantations in the United Stares, almost a third of which are in Hawaii. The first, established in 1888, was the Pinehurst Tea Plantation in South Carolina. It eventually gave rise to the Charleston Tea Plantation, purchased by the Bigelow Family in 2003.
Tea leaf harvesting begins for Luer with the first flush of new growth in early spring and ends in October when the plants go dormant over the winter.
“As soon as new growth develops into two leaves and a bud, it’s ready for picking,” he said. “The idea is that a second flush of new growth will occur after the first is harvested and so on.”
Luer spends about two hours every Saturday morning harvesting leaves from his plants.
“I listen to Big Pete’s show on WWOZ radio while I work,” he said, enjoying traditional jazz on the community FM station. “By the time it’s over, I’m finished.”
The next step in the process is leaf drying and processing. Depending on which method is used and how extensively the leaves are oxidized, tea will be white, green, oolong or black.
“It’s not the variety of Camellia sinensis that makes the difference as much as it is how the tea leaves are handled after they are picked,” explained Luer. “The simplest is white tea, which is made from picking and drying just the very tip of a new leaf shoot. For green tea, you pick two leaves and a bud, then steam the leaves or heat them in a pan to stop the oxidation process and to keep them green.
“To make oolong, you let the leaves oxidize and brown a bit before drying them, either by leaving out in the sun, tossing in a basket or rolling gently. Black tea (which is actually a deep mahogany red) is fully oxidized, then rolled and rubbed.
“All of them dry on a pan in the oven at 250 degrees for 20 minutes so they can be stored for brewing later.”
Green tea is Luer’s favorite. He likes to cold brew it in the refrigerator overnight, using about 3½ ounces (5 grams) of tea leaves for each cup of water.
“I drink it every day, at home and at work,” he said.