The rush to grow tea in the U.S. is on, with brave agronomical pioneers in several states boldly going where… you know the rest. But wait, there are already several relatives of the tea plant (Camellia Sinensis) blooming from coast to coast. Well, almost. Camellias, azaleas, and rhododendrons are the generally known names. You can’t steep the leaves, but you can enjoy their evergreen foliage and showy floral displays. Since Spring is just around the corner (honest!), you might want to see if any of these could grow where you are. So sit back, sip a cuppa, and read on.

A relative of those gorgeous blooming bushes in your yard? (Stock image)

A relative of those gorgeous blooming bushes in your yard? (Stock image)

According to the American Camellia Society, the tea family of plants is named Theaceae after the name of the first named genus in that family (Thea). Camellia is one of about 30 genera in that family. The name Thea is no longer used, with Camellia taking its place. The species Gordonia lasianthus (Loblolly Bay) is native to the United States, mostly grown in the Southeastern coastal plain. Two species of the genus Stewartia (Stewartia malacodendron and Stewartia ovata) are native to the Southeastern United States. The genus Franklinia is widely grown in gardens for their 3” wide white flowers fall colors of scarlet and crimson (all existing plants are descended from seeds collected around 1768 by William Bartram from wild plants along the Altamaha River in southern Georgia). The Ternstroemia species are evergreen trees and shrubs in mainly tropical regions of Asia, Africa, North and South America.

Camellia japonica is Alabama’s state flower (and one site shows there being 462 species in this genus), but is originally from eastern and southern Asia. Some japonicas perform well as far as Fort Myers and West Palm Beach in Florida: ‘Alba Plena’, ‘Debutante’, ‘Gigantea’, ‘Lady Clare’, ‘Mathotiana’, ‘Professor Charles S. Sargent’, and ‘Red Giant’. More than 3,000 named kinds of camellias exist, in a remarkable range of colors, forms, and sizes; they are not browsed by deer. The species Camellia oleifera can take temperatures down to -15°F if sheltered from sun and wind.

Camellia sasanqua is a flowering evergreen member of the tea family that is grown as either a large shrub or small tree, ranging from 4 to 15 feet tall. It has glossy green leaves and flowers in a variety of colors and shapes. It can be grown in USDA zones 7 to 9, and like azaleas and rhododendrons it loves an acidic soil enhanced with organic matter.

Ternstroemia gymnanthera is an evergreen with unusual foliage (its leaves change gradually from bright red to dark green). The average height ranges from 8 to 10 feet, but is often pruned as a hedge or topiary. The small, unremarkable white flowers give way to red berries in the fall. The shrub thrives in partial sunlight or shade in USDA zones 8 to 10.

See this extensive list of Camellias available.

See more of A.C. Cargill’s articles here.

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