Something's brewing at Devon's first tea plantation
PUBLISHED: 11:56 04 April 2016
A pioneering horticultural experiment is being carried out in the historic walled gardens at Maristow near Plymouth to produce Devon's first home-grown tea. Local merchant Plymouth Tea is looking forward to its first harvest this spring. Sharon Goble takes a tour and enjoys a cuppa
Devon has just about everything and now it has its very own tea plantation. It’s not easy to find, mind you! After many a wrong turn up a country lane, I’m more than ready for a calming brew by the time I arrive, slightly flustered, to meet the two women behind this venture at an isolated estuary location just a few miles north of Plymouth. It seems a million miles away…
Within the shelter of high walls, on a sunny west-facing slope, hundreds of little tea plants are growing. Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, to give them their Latin name. Sinensis means Chinese and Camellia translates as “tea flower’. Related to the flowering garden shrub, Camellia japonica, the Chinese plant was the first to be discovered, recorded and used to produce tea 3,000 years ago.
Hannah Fleming, General Manager of Plymouth Tea tells me: “All tea, whether it’s green, decaf, Earl Grey, or any type comes from a Camellia plant, except pure fruit infusions. The climate, soil acidity, aspect and processing determine the taste and the picked leaves are processed differently to produce white, green or black teas.”
Hannah is working alongside gardener and social entrepreneur, Jenny Tunley Price, to grow tea on Devon soil. The famous plant hunter, Robert Fortune, wrote in his journals nearly 200 years ago about the possibility of growing tea in the UK, but there’s only one other plantation in England - at Tregothnan in Cornwall.
Jenny says: “We are only the second grower in the whole of England so there aren’t lots of people we can go to for advice. Until we start to pick and process the leaves, we won’t know what this tea will taste like. It is literally going to be ‘suck it and see’, which makes this so incredibly exciting.”
The project’s been a challenge from the word go. Finding the right variety of plant in the right quantity wasn’t easy: you can’t just pick them up by the hundred at your local garden centre. Eventually, Jenny tweeted her horticultural contacts asking for help in sourcing them. Her phone didn’t stop ringing for days.
After a few frustrating false starts, they found a nursery in Belgium which could supply up to 350 young bushes. When they eventually arrived, after all sorts of shenanigans with the huge pantechnicon lorry delivering them, Hannah and Jenny were delighted to discover that some of the pots contained more than one plant, so they ended up with around 600 in total.
Hannah says: “We felt like expectant parents waiting for them to arrive! I was like, ‘When are my babies getting here?’”
Half have been planted out. The rest are in pots where they can be protected from frost. The first harvest this year will be up to a kilo if they’re lucky, but will increase as the bushes mature. The exclusive Plymouth-grown tea will be high-end, mainly for luxury hotels. They expect to produce a delicate green tea costing around £3,000 per kilo. Jenny says: “I think there’s also potential for a good market in America, particularly with Mayflower 400 in 2020, marking the 400th anniversary of the ship setting sail, and the strong link with Plymouth, Massachusetts. There are 20-odd towns in the States called Plymouth!”
It may be small-scale at the moment, but Hannah and Jenny have big ambitions for the plantation and how it will benefit the local community.
“One thing I am keen to do,” says Hannah, “is to create accredited qualifications for young people who have had limited opportunities and develop transferrable skills that they can use to build their CV, and learn about an unusual business environment.”
This pioneering project is about much more than producing home-grown tea. It’s being set up as a social enterprise, to provide rehabilitation to those with mental health issues, offenders, and ex-military. The peaceful site is ideal, with the high walls enhancing the sense of privacy and seclusion.
Jenny finishes: “Horticultural therapy has been shown to be particularly effective for conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression, but lots of people are quite resistant to it because they think they don’t like gardening. If you can engage them in growing tea, it captures their imagination in a way that growing a few carrots doesn’t!” w
Ten reasons to drink tea
1. Antioxidants in tea help protect against ageing.
2. Tea contains 30-50 mg of caffeine per cup, coffee around 135 mg.
3. Tea contains a natural anti-stress agent, theanine.
4. Tea is a source of the valuable minerals manganese and potassium.
5. Green and black teas contain similar amounts of antioxidants and caffeine.
6. Tea without milk has no calories. Semi-skimmed milk adds around 13 calories per cup, but also adds minerals and calcium.
7. Tea contains a natural source of fluoride.
8. Drinking tea (without sugar) is beneficial in preventing tooth decay.
9. Tea contains zinc and folic acid.
10. A Netherlands study found the risk of fatal heart failure was lowered by 70% when people drank at least two cups daily.
Unearthing a Victorian walled garden
The five-acre garden would once have provided all the fruit, vegetables and flowers for Maristow House and been tended by up to 14 gardeners.
Original records were destroyed in fires, but the oldest wall is believed to date from 1780. It was run as a market garden from 1950 but fell into disuse.
When Jenny took on the lease seven years ago, it was so overgrown she didn’t realise some sections were walled. She cleared it by hand as it was too steep for a rotavator.
Finds include the remains of a mushroom house, a peach house and hot houses, possibly for growing pineapples!