Robert Fortune

Why can’t we grow tea in America?  We can, and we now do. The history of tea planting in the United States can be traced to the years just prior to The Civil War.

On July 21, 1857, Charles Mason, United State Commissioner of Patents, wrote to his seed suppliers in London to inquire about the probable cost of about ten bushels of tea seed, along with expenses that might be incurred in sending an agent for the purpose of collecting the seed in China. America was indeed interested in growing its own tea.

The London seed merchants turned to the only source they knew, the great tea spy Robert Fortune.

Fortune, a Scottish botanist trained, like Darwin, at the University of Edinburgh, first traveled to China in 1843 on a three-year spy mission into the secretive tea-growing districts on behalf of the East India Company. From Canton, he dispatched tea seedlings, notes on tea manufacture and Chinese tea workers to India as the Company began experimental tea gardens in the Himalayan foothills – now Dooars and Darjeeling.

Fortune agreed to do the same deed for the Americans, and on March 4, 1858, he set out on his fourth journey into the Chinese interior.

Among botanist Robert Fortune’s tasks in China was to learn the procedure for manufacturing tea, as shown in this 18th-century tea plantation. (The Granger Collection, New York)

Meanwhile, back in the United States, a five-acre plot in the middle of Washington was prepared for the arrival of the tea plants. Heated greenhouses had been constructed to nurture the seedlings in this official Government Experimental and Propagating Garden located on Missouri Avenue at Sixth Street.

Fortune left Shanghai in early March 1859 after writing a letter to Washington proudly telling the Patent Office that he had, a few months prior, sent enough seeds to produce 32,000 tea plants, “enough to rend the plant common in every garden in America.”

However, Fortune’s trip to Washington to oversee the experiment was abruptly called off by the Americans who reckoned they could propagate the plants now that they were growing in Washington soil. It appears that, due to changing leadership, the Patent Office and the new Department of Agriculture had developed no real methodology for organized tea plantings.

Many of Fortune’s plants seem to have been dispatched by congressmen to their constituents back home in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida, as indicated in this 1865 letter from James H. Rion of Winnsboro, South Carolina:


“In the fall of 1859, I received from the Patent Office, Washington, a very tiny tea-plant, which I placed in my flower-garden as a curiosity. It has grown well, has always been free from any disease, has had full out-door exposure, and attained a height of 5 feet, 8 inches There cannot be the least doubt but that the tea-plant will flourish in South Carolina.”

Alas, the Washington tea bushes were reaching maturity just as the Civil War was erupting. Tea nurseries gave way to troop encampments and bushes transplanted in the south were now located in secessionist states. Robert Fortune’s hard-earned camellia Sinensis would be forgotten for several decades.

Several commercial gardens have been established in the United States including the 127-acre South Carolina Garden owned by Bigelow Tea and various tea farms on the Hawaii’s Big Island.

In 2012, Jason McDonald and Timothy Gipson began their Great Mississippi Tea Farm in Brookhaven, Mississippi. They turned to Nigel Melican, the Johnny Appleseed of the tea industry, as their guide to establishing their fields and nursery. In 2020, the garden produced 500 pounds of finished tea – not a great amount of product to show for their hard work but their yield will grow each year.

mississippi tea garden
Read more about the history of tea in A SOCIAL HISTORY OF TEA by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson.

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