By Shelia Watson
The American philosopher Williams James once noted that “there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”
Nowhere is this more evident than in Charleston, where, following its pre-Revolutionary English roots, afternoon tea is still considered a refined and dignified ceremony.
The visitor who has the fortune to experience the Charleston tea room will find a tradition well kept and tastefully maintained over the years.
Charleston has the distinction of being the first place tea was grown in the United States. In 1799, French botanist Francois Andre Micheaux brought the first tea plants and seeds to America, specifically to what is now Middleton Place Gardens, near Charleston.
Early attempts to grow tea in the United States include a successful venture in 1888 when Dr. Charles Shepard established the Pinehurst Tea Plantation in Summerville. Pinehurst gained fame for its oolong tea, which claimed first prize at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Shepard’s plantation was an innovative experimental farm that flourished until his death in 1915.
In 1903, one of Shephard’s students, Maj. Roswell Trimble, along with his partner, Augustus C. Tyler, started the American Tea Growing Company. They transplanted thousands of plants from Pinehurst to a farm near Rantowles, just outside Charleston. But by 1907, the two were feuding so much the company dissolved.
Pinehurst was overgrown when Thomas J. Lipton Inc. arrived in 1963. Lipton created a research station on Wadmalaw Island, where he experimented with Shepard’s remaining plants, ultimately proving that a high quality tea could be grown successfully in the United States, particularly in the Southeast.
In 1987, Mack Fleming and William Barclay Hall started the Charleston Tea Plantation after purchasing 127 acres from Lipton and turned the farm into the only place in America where tea is grown commercially. The plantation produces American Classic Tea.
Fleming says Charleston’s high humidity is perfect for growing tea plants, noting that “the humidity in Charleston is 95 percent during the summer months.”
Tea plants last from 600 to 800 years. Some of the plants at the Charleston Tea Plantation are descendants of bushes brought to the United States more than 100 years ago.
Fleming says the plantation has 320 different varieties of tea plants, 315 of which came from the Summerville plantation.
Tea is part of almost every culture in the world, dating back to the ancient Chinese. It was originally used for medicinal purposes, as tea has the unusual ability to calm and stimulate at the same time. It later became popular for social purposes.
The tradition of afternoon tea, or “taking tea,” as it is properly referred to, has been attributed more to the English and was discovered as a way to make it through the long period between their mid day and evening meal.
Many of the churches in the historic district hold tea rooms during certain times of the year, such as during the Spoleto Festival or during the Christmas holidays. A few of the finer hotels and bed & breakfast establishments also have tea rooms, which feature classic tea sandwiches, tarts, crumpets, scones and other culinary delights.