In 2022, South Carolina’s Wadmalaw Island is a throwback, where drivers wave to let each other pass on the two-lane Maybank Highway, though “highway” is used loosely here. AME and Baptist churches and low-slung oak trees line what’s otherwise a sleepy main corridor, connecting all 10 miles of the island. Much of Wadmalaw is under a conservation easement, which restricts land use for developments. Here, you won’t see much new construction or the boxy, sterile apartments sprinkled throughout downtown Charleston, and residents like it that way.
The scent in the air is anything but soporific. It changes a few miles out from the Charleston Tea Garden, a site with tea plants that’s the largest of its kind in North America. Even if you aren’t headed there, the smell of freshly cut grass gives way to a floral, earthy fragrance. You smell it on the wind.
Tea can be traced back to the Han Dynasty, but it “only” arrived in the United States in the late 1700s. Today, tea is the world’s second-most consumed beverage, after water. Tea time is synonymous with the United Kingdom, sweet tea with the U.S. South. Children have tea parties; tea and honey is a time-tested remedy for a sore throat. And, like water, tea has a political history: Colonialists protesting taxes by the British chucked shipments of that nation’s tea into Boston Harbor; centuries later, the Tea Party Movement got its name from the earlier political protest.
Americans don’t consume the most tea—that designation goes to Ireland—but iced tea, and particularly sweet tea, has firm footing in the United States. Roughly 75 to 80 percent of tea ingested in the United States is iced, according to the Tea Association of the U.S.A. It is not a new invention: Cookbooks with recipes for tea popped up around the 19th century—a late 1800s cookbook with an iced tea recipe called for “two teaspoonfuls granulated sugar” and a “squeeze of lemon.”
Even though tea is a religious experience in South Carolina and across the South, tea producers in North America are hard to find, largely due to growing conditions, climate, elevation, and air quality. There’s a small but mighty group of tea farmers in the U.S. with their own membership community, the U.S. League of Tea Growers, but the largest bulk of tea is produced in China. Tea plants are native to East Asia: China’s tea made up nearly 50 percent of global output in 2020, according to a study from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. And even among tea gardens, the Charleston Tea Garden is the smallest, at 127 acres. By contrast, the Monabarie Tea Estate—Asia’s largest—covers 2,870 acres in the Assam region of India.
Tea time outside Charleston
The garden is 35 minutes from downtown Charleston, and a sign outside the farm recommends guests avoid rideshare options like Uber or Lyft because of lengthy wait times. The garden’s seclusion only enhances the experience. A white building, which functions as a welcome center and gift shop, is closer to the gardens than the road, and even on such a sleepy island, it feels like you’re someplace else. The few steps up to the wooden porch, not unlike houses seen across Wadmalaw Island, creak and groan; it’s the only sound you hear aside from leaves swaying in the wind. A waypoint notes that the next closest tea gardens to Wadmalaw Island are in China (7,320 miles away) and Kenya (7,816 miles). Inside, a gift shop sells everything from body products to Popsicles made with tea from the gardens.
The highlight, of course, is the actual garden itself, which doesn’t resemble a botanical or other planned garden, but, like those, is unquestionably, unavoidably, green. Even on a cloudless mid-October day, the blueness of the sky seemed out of place, where the grass, trees, and field glinted with green hues that looked almost unnatural.
Visiting the tea garden is free; a 45-minute tour of the grounds costs $15. At 11:30, a red trolley pulled up outside the main building, and my tour began promptly. Guests clutched steaming mugs filled to the brim with tea grown in the gardens, some with names like Charleston Breakfast, rich and full bodied, and Peachy Peach Tea. Amid rows and rows of tea plants, workers dotted the fields, tending to the plants.
Originally a potato farm, the Charleston Tea Garden began in 1963, when tea devotees transplanted plants from nearby Summerville, South Carolina. In 1987, William Barclay “Bill” Hall—a tea taster who had trained for years in London—purchased the land and turned the operation into a commercial one. In 2003, the Bigelow Tea Company bought the gardens.
Paul, our jovial tour guide—and the only person wearing shorts on the chilly morning—informed us that the garden has been able to thrive in Charleston in large part because of the rainy weather; the area averages 48 inches of rain a year. The climate is conducive for growing the Camellia sinensis tea plant, which produces both black and green teas.
Though there is an emphasis on history, the garden is undergoing a transformation not unlike the one that’s happening across the nation. Formerly called the Charleston Tea Plantation, its name was changed in June 2020, with the company saying that the word plantation “carries significant pain for many in this country and throughout the world.” Still, some hints of the Charleston Tea Garden’s past remain. The video that plays in the factory greets guests with text reading “welcome to the Charleston Tea Plantation.” Hall’s voice can be heard throughout the tour, adding context to what visitors see during the journey; he, too, refers to the land as a “plantation.”
Today, more than 300 varieties of tea plants exist on the grounds, and it takes five to seven years for a plant to go from cutting to big enough to be harvested for the nine flavors of tea produced here, says Rhonda Mott, the business operations coordinator at the gardens. When I ask her about the garden’s long history of success, she says it comes down to patience—after all, you can’t do anything but let the plants grow.
“It takes a lot of love and commitment,” she says.