Steeped in History

On the outskirts of Charleston, a working plantation carries on the ancient art of tea farming

It is a warm spring day at the Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island, just after opening time, and the morning dew hugs the tender leaves atop thousands of camellia plants. At the Visitor’s Center, a chalkboard encourages guests to share the name of their hometown, and as the visitors arrive the board fills up with locales near and far. The air becomes thick with conversation, a melting pot of languages and dialects, as the people board trolleys that tour the grounds. Excited, the riders crane their necks to see the fields, snapping photos as they go. This is a special place, a world-renowned destination: this is the only tea plantation in the continental United States.

The United States is a coffee-centric nation, a place where a cup of joe is virtually never out of reach, and the country’s relationship with tea is fairly loose and relatively new. But elsewhere in the world, tea has a firm standing: permeating cultures, customs, and traditions on every continent for centuries. Tea is consumed more than any other beverage on the planet aside from water, and plantations are abundant in Asian, African, and European countries. In America, though, there exists only one true tea plantation, and that is right here in South Carolina.

In 1799, André Michaux, botanist to King Louis XVI, presented Henry Middleton with a number of plants for his Charleston plantation, including the Camellia japonica, an ornamental shrub in the camellia family. When the plant thrived in the Southern climate, it became clear that the Camellia sinensis, the variety from which tea is created, would likely also grow well in the area, and several attempts were made to grow tea in the Southern states. Perhaps the most well known was the work of Dr. Charles Shepard who, in 1888, founded the Pinehurst Tea Plantation in Summerville. The teas of Pinehurst Plantation were consumed far and wide, and one variety even won first prize at the 1904 World’s Fair. Dr. Shepard worked tirelessly to propagate the most ideal Camellia sinensis until his death in 1915, and with no heir interested in continuing his legacy, the plantation shut down, and the plants grew wild for the next forty-eight years.

In 1963, the Lipton tea company established an experimental tea farm, intending to study how feasible it would be to grow tea in the United States in the event of the world’s supply becoming inaccessible. The company purchased a former potato farm on Wadmalaw Island, transplanted Dr. Shepard’s tea plants from Summerville, and spent decades conducting research, analyzing tea plants, and propagating new varieties. When Richard Nixon opened up trade with China, it became clear that there would likely never be a dearth of tea in the United States, and by the late 1980s, Lipton was no longer conducting necessary research on the viability of tea growing in the country. Around the same time, the tea plantation caught the attention of a Mr. William Barclay Hall.

William Barclay Hall, known to his friends as just “Bill,” is a tea man if there ever was one. A third-generation tea taster, Bill received his formal training in London, the center of the world tea trade. For four years, his apprenticeship involved tasting between 800-1000 cups of tea every day, five days a week, until he was certified in differentiating between the subtle nuances of flavor in the beverage. Upon arrival back in the States, Hall settled into life as a tea buyer and seller.  It was on his way to a tea convention that he read an article about the history of tea in America, authored by Lipton. The article asserted that growing tea in the United States was unfeasible as a lucrative business, which Hall read as a challenge. After the convention, he flew to Charleston, visited Summerville’s public library, and researched Dr. Shepard’s tea plantation and what became of it. Hall soon found that Lipton had transplanted most of Shepard’s tea plants to a research station out at Wadmalaw, and used his connections in the tea industry to gain access to the farm. He purchased the plantation, converted it to a commercial operation, and eventually came to partner with Bigelow Tea Company in 2003, forging a relationship with “Mr. and Mrs. Bigelow” that has cemented the notoriety and success of the American Classic Tea brand.

These days, the 127-acre farm boasts 320 varieties of tea plants, a mechanical picker, a processing facility, a bustling visitor’s center, and a trolley tour, and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Charleston area. Visitors to the plantation enjoy complimentary access, tea tastings, and factory tours, and trolley tours are available for a small fee. Open seven days a week, the tea plantation is a beautiful, accessible look into the historical relationship our country has with the world’s favorite beverage, and a delicious one, at that.

The Charleston Tea Plantation is Open Monday-Saturday from 10-4 and Sundays from Noon-4.

By Jana Riley