South Carolina Tea History

Sandra Russell

The Province of South Carolina was considered a strong royalist state during the American War of Independence. It had the most revolutionary war battles than any other state as Loyalist Carolinians and Native Americans fought against the Patriots.

It was also evident where tea battles were concerned. The then capital of Charleston had the most revolutionary 'tea parties'. The first one in 1773, technically started before the more infamous Boston one. It was more of an act of boycott, as the tea was taken from the British ship, The London and stored in a warehouse. The second tea party the following year also resulted in the tea being stored in a warehouse. The third time was a bit more dramatic, with seven crates of tea dumped into Charleston Harbor, by the tea importers themselves. South Carolina’s tea history is intertwined with the Native American drink of Yaupon and Cassina, the only caffeinated plants native to North America. Their comparable tea-like drink was used often for rituals, medicine, and trade with the settlers. Yaupon began being grown on colonial farms, consumed widely in towns across the US South and even traded to England and Europe, where it was known as the Carolina or Indian Tea. Yaupon’s success as an international beverage did not last. Its popularity may have been its downfall, as by the 1780s, the British East India Company deemed it a threat to their tea market and began limiting importation. It also did not help that in 1789, botanist William Aiton from Kew Royal Botanical gardens, gave it a controversial scientific name, Ilex vomitoria. It is not considered emetic but occasionally the Native Americans use of it alongside fasting and drinking large quantities caused vomiting. It became associated with poor, rural communities who could not afford to import traditional Chinese tea, the tea that purists called true tea. In current times, it has had a resurgence and can be commonly found mixed with black tea. The state of South Carolina seemed destined for tea farming, as the latitude is like Chinas and its red soil, full of iron oxide, is desirable tea soil. In the 1800s and 1900s several entrepreneurs attempted to take advantage of these favorable conditions, unfortunately with limited success. In 1799 the first documented planting of Camelia Sinensis, tea plant took place near Charleston at Middleton Place (formerly Middleton Barony) by renowned French botanist André Michaux. It grew to a height of 15ft but the tea from it was considered too different from the popular Bohea and green teas that were popular at that time.
South Carolina Tea History
Thea Bohea - Black Tea

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South Carolina Tea History
Wadmalaw Island, Charleston Tea Garden

Then in 1848, Dr. Junius Smith, a 70-year-old London based American businessman, known as one of the pioneers of Steamship travel, moved to Greenville, South Carolina to start an experimental tea farm.

Possibly inspired by his daughter who lived in India, he started his 269-acre Golden Grove Plantation located in the foothills of South Carolina. He went on to write the first extensive US publications about tea planting. Even with an 8-inch snow in the area, his plants seemed to prosper. Unfortunately, he did not, as his tea project ended when he was killed by an intruder. Renowned British botanist Robert Fortune was hired to recreate his Indian tea success in America in the late 1850’s. He never reached American soil perhaps due to impending tensions prior to the American Civil War. 30,000 of his tea plants and seeds were still imported and distributed to southeastern and gulf states. Many small family tea gardens were grown but none for commercial use. Other unsuccessful experimental tea farms were started in the late 1880’s. One was by Scottish native, John Jackson, who had been an experienced tea farmer in India. He tried both in Georgia and South Carolina to make a go of tea farming. A mile from Jacksons failed tea experiment and near Middleton Barony, in Summerville, South Carolina, yet another experimental government tea project at Pinehurst Plantation began. Dr. Charles Shepard, grew fifteen varieties including Darjeeling and Assam hybrids. His first tea plucking was ready by 1893. The US Dept of Agriculture proclaimed it a ‘very excellent English Breakfast Tea’. There was some controversy surrounding the Pickaninny Labor used; African American children were given schooling and wages in exchange for labor. Pinehurst did go on to receive top honors for its Formosa Oolong Tea at the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair. It is the first viable tea farm in American History. The farm flourished until his death in 1915. A student of Shepards also tried tea farming. Its failure may have been due partly due to the repeal of the Spanish-American War import tax of ten cents a pound on tea. Tea farming in America had been almost forgotten, until 48 years later when the Lipton Tea Company took tea root cuttings and stock from Pinehurst Plantation to start experimental tea farms in both Summerville and Wadmalaw, SC. These plants had grown wild and cross pollinated for years beforehand and were known as South Carolina Hybrids. This was made possible as some varieties of tea plants can live for hundreds of years. They cultivated over three hundred varieties of tea but in the end concluded that tea production in South Carolina was not viable, due to the changeable weather and high labor costs.
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In 1987 William Barclay Hall, third generation professional tea taster and owner of a tea brokerage firm, bought the Wadmalaw Lipton Farm alongside horticulturist Mack Fleming, former head of Lipton Research.

Fleming had updated the tea harvester while working at Lipton, making it a much-needed innovation in tea farming. Their combined talents helped to finally establish tea farming in the US. Their Charleston Tea Plantation’s American Classic tea became the official tea of the White House. In 2003, the current Charleston Tea plantation, now known as Charleston Tea Garden, was purchased by the Bigelow tea family, while William Hall maintained a partnership. At the time, it was the only commercial tea garden in America, and is still currently one of the largest in the US with 127 acres. It grows and sells tea while offering various tours and events. More recently the 30-acre Table Rock Tea Company in Pickens has taken on the tea challenge. The couple Steve and Lori Lorch did not initially set out to be tea farmers. Their need for a long hardy hedge led them there. They decided to cross utilize their hedge of tea plants and become resolute tea farmers. They mostly harvest by hand and have diversified by selling tea seeds, tea plants and providing educational tours. There has been so much toil and misfortune in South Carolina’s tea history, but the tide has finally turned. It has been such a long time but with the persistence and belief of so many incredible tea pioneers, it can now be successfully grown in South Carolina, alongside many other areas of the US. These tea Farms not only grow teas but have grown into destinations for tea lovers around the world to experience.
South Carolina Tea History

Sandra Russell

I have a bachelor’s degree in business and have worked in the travel industry and college administration. I currently work alongside my husband as a creative consultant in his voiceover business.(@thebritishvoice). I am a hobbyist historian with a particular interest in British American History. I have curated an anglophile Instagram account @brillbrits for over 4 years where I have a variety of content including some British and American history content.
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