Two for Tea

America’s only commercial tea crop is grown on an island with plants more than a century old

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Early on a sunny morning, Mack Fleming and I relax in two patio chairs under a phalanx of live-oak trees and enjoy a couple of glasses of sweet, smooth iced tea. It's not Darjeeling from India or Lapsang souchong from China. It's Fleming's baby, the only tea produced commercially in North America, and it's cultivated right here at the Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island, off the coast of South Carolina.

Fleming is a shrewd, slow-talking, shiny-pated South Carolina native who once served as the head of a college horticulture department but has long since become a tea expert. He's a man at home on this island, 20 miles south of Charleston's seaport; indeed, he seems as rooted here as the oaks looming above us. His partner, William Barclay Hall, has a gleaming mane of long hair, rides horses and drives a red Lotus. He's Canadian by birth, British by tea-taster training and South Carolinian by choice. Along with their families and a staff of about 40, Fleming and Hall manage the 127 acres of Lowcountry land and 320 varieties of plant that produce the robust blend called American Classic.

"Tea is fascinating," Fleming muses. "The plants here are at least 112 years old. Some tea plants in China and India are 800 years old, and they're still healthy and producing."

He gestures across the driveway, where acres of green, square-trimmed tea bushes stretch almost to the horizon. "These plants," Fleming says, "are descendants of the first tea plants ever brought to the United States.

And because they're hearty and grow so thick, we don't have to use insecticides or fungicides. Each plant is also grown from original cuttings, not from seeds fertilized by different parents. We want the same plants every time, so we take cuttings from existing plants and grow direct clones. It's more work, but it keeps quality consistent."

Fleming and Hall bought the plantation in 1987 from the Lipton company, which had used it as an experimental plot for decades. But the story of tea-growing in the United States actually begins in 1799. According to Fleming, that's when the first tea bushes arrived in this country—probably by mistake. "They came with a large shipment of other plants for the French botanist André Micheaux, who was putting together what is today the Middleton Place Gardens near Charleston."

In 1848, a planter named Junius Smith took some Micheaux tea cuttings from Middleton Place, along with others from overseas, and nurtured them into the first commercial tea crop at his Golden Grove Plantation, some 20 miles from Wadmalaw Island. "Smith's tea business was a success for five years," Fleming says, "right up until the time he was shot and killed."

In 1874, a landed gentleman named Dr. Alexis Forster tried tea farming, this time in the South Carolina burg of Georgetown. The venture thrived for five years — again, right up until its proprietor's untimely death. "Dr. Forster is said to have been traveling home in his buggy and was set upon by 'rascals,'" Fleming tells me. "While he was being chased, his buggy hit a rock in the road and flipped. He was killed."

Next came the biochemist Dr. Charles Shepard, who in 1888 set up the 100-acre Pinehurst Tea Plantation. Within a few years, Pinehurst's tea became a national favorite. But after Shepard's death in 1915 — "of natural causes," Fleming notes — the plantation went to pot.

Lipton established its research station on Wadmalaw Island in 1963. Taking cuttings from the plants at Pinehurst, the company set about seeing if high-quality tea could still be grown with them. The results were promising, and in 1978 Mack Fleming joined Lipton as the farm's director of tea horticulture.

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