After water, tea is the most popular beverage on earth. People drink it far and wide, on every continent and in every country, and it’s often associated with such exotic locales as China, Kenya, India, and Peru. Thanks to a small farm on Wadmalaw Island, we can now add South Carolina to that list. The Charleston Tea Plantation, owned in part by the renowned R. C. Bigelow & Company, is the only place in North America that produces black tea commercially.
Tea, South Carolina’s official state “hospitality” beverage,(1) has a long and colorful history in our state. In 1791(2), French botanist Andre Michaux brought the Camellia sinensis plant to his friend Henry Middleton, future governor and heir to Middleton Plantation in Dorchester County. Tea has since become a veritable staple in the Lowcountry, where the soil is sandy, the air is humid, and tropical temperatures prevail.
Of course, this doesn’t mean growing tea in these parts has come easily. Farm after farm collapsed before finally – after nearly two centuries of trial – horticulturalist Mack Flemming and his partner William Hall claimed success with their brand, American Classic. Together the two men took over the former Lipton Research Station on Wadmalaw, cultivating cuttings from plants once grown at Pinehurst Tea Gardens in Summerville.
Interestingly, though Pinehurst ceased operations nearly a century ago and the land has long since been carved into neighborhoods, residents still find tea growing wild in their backyards. Because the plants have acclimated to our climate over time, their cuttings are stronger and more likely to survive than those from imported varieties.
Fleming and Hall split their company several years ago, and Hall, a third-generation tea taster trained in England, approached the Bigelow family to help save the land from developers. Ruth Bigelow’s daughter flew down from Connecticut to bid on the plantation at auction, and its future was secured. Since 2003, Hall and Bigelow have managed the plantation jointly.
The Charleston Tea Plantation is open to visitors who can view the factory, take a trolley tour of the fields, browse the gift shop, and best of all – sample the tea. After all, tea tastes best when it’s fresh, which gives a cup “born and brewed” in South Carolina a distinct advantage. Visitors can also attend the annual First Flush Festival in May, a large concert organized by the owners to celebrate their spring harvest. October is also a great month to visit the Charleston Tea Plantation. Butterflies abound along the coast this time of year, and the tea plants attract them by the hundreds with their small white blooms.