Wild Tea, Mid-Atlantic Style

As a native of Pennsylvania, writing this article for tea merchants who are headquartered in the same state, I’d like to be able to say that it’s a hotbed of tea production. But it’s not and it probably never has been. But I ran across an interesting story not so long ago about the time that wild tea plants were apparently found growing there and in the western portion of the state’s neighbor to the south – Maryland.

It’s a report that apparently turned up in the New York Times about 150 years ago, in 1863. As the story goes, The American Tea Company, “an association chartered by the Legislature of Pennsylvania,” hired a certain Dr. Spencer Bonsall to “examine the American tea plant.” The good doctor came to the surprising and somewhat dubious conclusion that there were indigenous tea plants growing in Pennsylvania and Western Maryland in abundance. He claimed that the tea growing there was almost identical to some of the varieties then being grown in the Assam region of India and suggested that “tea equal to any that is brought from China could be made from this plant.”

All of which might lead one to wonder about the extent of Bonsall’s knowledge about the tea plant. But I suppose there’s just the tiniest, remotest ghost of a chance that he uncovered evidence of wild tea plants growing in the Americas, a feat that to the best of my knowledge was never duplicated before or since. Who’s to say?

A search through the New York Times archives doesn’t turn up any evidence of this article but I don’t claim to be the reigning expert when it comes to research. In any event, the pertinent passages from the article turn up in this archived article from a New Zealand paper, of all things, dated the following year. To read the passage in its entirety scroll down about three-fourths of the way.

I regret to say that as far as I know tea still is not being grown in Pennsylvania or Maryland, but according to this recent article by our Esteemed Editor it has made its way as close as neighboring Virginia, as well as more than a dozen other states. The article looks at the newly formed The United States League of Tea Growers and if you’re interested in the modest but lively American tea industry as it stands right now it’s worth a look.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

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One thought on “Wild Tea, Mid-Atlantic Style

  1. I live in Pennsylvania and have never known of tea being grown here but after reading this and learning about the League of Tea Growers I will do more research. BTW, I did have a personal Camellia Sinensis plant that lasted two years in our Pennsylvania climate. I am hoping to acquire another for my personal enjoyment but have no plans of going commercial. Thanks for this great information.

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