Tom Nuccio, right, explains how to grow tea while Christopher Nyerges, left, photographs the tea plants. | Photo by Helen W. Nyerges

How I learned to grow my own tea — and you can, too

2021 Christopher Nyerges Columnists Editions March

By Christopher Nyerges

If you’ve ever tried to grow your own coffee in Southern California, you were most certainly disappointed when the plants died in the first frost.

But tea is a different story.

The actual tea plant is a camellia, Camellia sinensis, to be exact. And one of the largest domestic growers of camellias is the Nuccio Nursery, located right next door to NELA in Altadena.

The Nuccio family has been propagating and selling rare camellias since 1935. They currently grow about 600 varieties, about 100 of which they’ve developed themselves. 

Why camellias?  On a recent visit to the nursery, I put that question to Tom Nuccio, who operates the six-acre nursery with his brother. “It’s the whole package,” said Nuccio. “The camellia is a good-looking plant, even when it’s not flowering. It’s evergreen and doesn’t require that much care. The flowers are almost a bonus.”

Still, I didn’t go to the nursery because I like pretty flowers. I wanted to grow tea, the real tea, the tea with caffein that is served in every Asian restaurant in the world.

The flower of Camelia sinensis | Photo by Christopher Nyerges

Of the Nuccio’s 600 camellia varieties, Camellia sinensis is really the only one that interested me.

Tom Nuccio took me and my wife into the inner sanctum of the nursery to look at the section of small tea plants which they sell for about $14. The plants, about a foot tall, were propagated from older tea plants by rooting their tender outer stems. 

Tom also took us to look at the larger tea plants, beyond the area where the general public is allowed to venture. These were about three feet tall and fuller, the ones that landscapers might want to plant for a quick effect.

Tom pointed out that you don’t just pick the leaves off tea bushes and brew them. He gave us printed instructions for making green tea. In brief, the tender young growth is picked and the leaves and shoots are allowed to wilt in the shade for a few hours. Then these are rolled between the hands until the leaves darken and become bruised, but not broken. Then the leaves are allowed to ferment by placing them in thin layers on a tray in a shady location. After two to three days, the leaves should be dried in a 250-degree oven for 20 minutes. Then, the tea is ready to use.

The leaves of Camellia sinensis are also used to make white tea, yellow tea, oolong tea, dark tea and black tea, but the leaves are processed differently to have different levels of oxidation. Twig tea, or kukicha, is made from the plant’s stems and twigs.

Nuccio Nursery is located at 3555 Chaney Trail in Altadena (the route hikers take into Millard Canyon). Check the website for days and hours of operation. On rainy days, the nursery normally closes early so call before you visit, 626-794-3383.

Christopher Nyerges is an ethnobotanist, educator and author of “Guide to Wild Foods,” and other books. His website is: