When you think of tea plantations you generally think of South Carolina, India or China. But, there’s a tea plantation here in Fairhope, AL. Its owner is Donnie Barrett, Director of the Fairhope Museum and he gave us a tour and some tea.
Tea is not an easy plant to grow and harvest. Its methods are “secrets” and guarded by families who grow it. Donnie had to travel several times to China to tour some of the farms and, acting as a casual tourist, he was able to ask the right questions, and enough of them, to figure it out. It also helped that he and his wife hired a man from China to come back to America with them to be the family cook. They learned each other’s languages including “southern”, and Donnie learned even more about growing and harvesting tea.
His tea is delicious and he described to us how to infuse the leaves and get a great tasting pot tea. Green tea, white tea, black tea…they all come from the same plant and the same leaves. It is the process you put them through that makes them different. Donnie gave us some of his “ancient Chinese secrets”, but I lost my pen somewhere along the way and couldn’t get all the details into my notebook.
Tea grows great under a canopy as it does in the full sun, but it’s meant to be a shade plant. Under the sun, the leaves grow straight up; under a canopy or in the shade they tend to grow horizontal from the branches. Believe it or not, this makes the flavor different. We got to chew on some leaves. Very “green” tasting.
Tea is from the camellia family. The tea plants produce a flower and when the petals drop, a seed pod is left behind. When it dries out and cracks open the seeds fall to the ground. Donnie keeps these from sprouting and mixing in with his plants. One of the keys he taught us is that you shouldn’t mix tea plant generations because they taste different. The seeds don’t produce identical replicas of the parent plant. So when we were finished the tour, we helped him pull up some seedlings which he sent home with us along with directions for planting. I may not have a plantation but maybe I’ll have a surviving plant to make tea from.
The tea plantation has been the site of many television shows. He used to give regular tours to bus loads of people but not anymore. Tea technicians come out regularly to sample the leaves and check the soil. Donnie has given several plants to the state of Alabama for, I believe he said the extension service, to experiment with in hopes of growing enough tea plants to sell to residents.
When the tour was over, we visited with his newly hatched turkey (only an hour old at that point) and learned about the other hobbies that keep him busy: emus, chickens, peacocks, turkeys, and art (he carves limestone). Donnie serves up his tea at the Fairhope Museum on Thursdays so stop by for a cup of tea and a lecture on history.
As I got into my car I realized I had stuck my pen into my back pocket. I guess I wasn’t supposed to reveal his secrets to tea growing. When I got home, I made a pot of sweet tea; Luzianne not Fairhope Camellia but it was good.