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On my first trip to the Charleston, SC area, I discovered that the Charleston Tea Garden was too far away to take a cab or Uber to. I looked forward to visiting, especially since the farm is owned by the Bigelow family, creators of my preferred brand of tea.
I left Charleston thinking “maybe someday”, not knowing that an opportunity would quickly present itself for a return visit. This time, Sailor’s Rest on Johns Island hosted my stay. Before the trip, I studied maps of the islands located just outside the Charleston area. And what did I discover? Charleston Tea Garden, on Wadmalaw Island, was a short 15 minute drive from my beautiful accommodations.
Because I rented a car after flying into the Charleston airport, I could easily visit the two places I missed before: Angel Oak Tree and Charleston Tea Garden. What a joy to spend a morning at the tea farm, exploring and learning how tea is grown and processed.
Charleston Tea Garden
For anyone who enjoys drinking tea, hot or iced, the Charleston Tea Garden is a must see. They are the only such tea garden in the US, where hundreds of thousands of tea plants grow in the ideal South Carolina climate.
Owned by the Bigelow family, the farm offers guests an amazing tea experience.
In addition to many acres of tea plants, visitors enjoy an educational tour of the tea factory. And a 45 minute trolley ride around the property provides an up close look at the plants and a tour guide that shares interesting facts about the whole process.
Every year 75,000 people visit Charleston Tea Garden from around the world. I’m excited that I was one of those visitors this year.
The tea garden is located on Wadmalaw Island, in the heart of the South Carolina Lowcountry. This island, along with Johns Island and several others, lie just south of historic Charleston. Wadmalaw is considered one of the most unspoiled islands in the area. It is ten miles long and six miles wide and only accessible by a single bridge that crosses over Church Creek.
With its sandy soil, sub-tropical climate and an average rainfall of 52 inches per year, Wadmalaw Island provides the ideal growing conditions for the Camellia Sinensis tea plant. Both green and black teas come from more than 320 varieties of tea plants that thrive on 127 acres.
Charleston Tea Garden History
In the late 1700s, Camellia Sinensis tea bushes arrived in the US from China. Over the next 150 years, attempts to propagate and produce tea in South Carolina proved unsuccessful.
Finally in 1888 Dr. Charles Shepard founded Pinehurst Tea Plantation in Summerville, South Carolina, making the dream to grow tea in the US a reality. Dr. Shepard produced award winning teas until his death in 1915. The plantation closed after his death and the tea plants grew wild for the next 45 years.
In 1963 a 127 acre potato farm on Wadmalaw Island became the new home for Dr. Shepard’s wild tea plants. After transplanting the tea bushes, the farm experimented with growing the plants. William Barclay Hall purchased the farm in 1987. Hall, a third generation tea taster with formal training in London, England, converted the experimental farm into a commercial operation and founded the Charleston Tea Plantation.
William Hall created a partnership with the Bigelow family in 2003 and they purchased the farm. In 2020 the Bigelow family changed the name from Charleston Tea Plantation to Charleston Tea Garden to better reflect the nature of the property. It never operated as a plantation and the Bigelows wanted to both honor the land that was farmed for many years and display sensitivity to those who find the word plantation painful.
Charleston Tea Garden Trolley Tour
While there is no admission fee to enter Charleston Tea Garden or for the factory tour, there is a fee for the trolley tour. For adults, tickets are $15, children ages 4 -11 are $7.50 each and children 3 and under are free. Trust me, the trolley tour is worth the cost of a ticket!
During the tour visitors see acres and acres of growing tea plants and learn about tea from the entertaining tour guide and the founder, the late William Hall, who narrates portions of the tour over the sound system. Truly, our tour guide made the experience so amazing! She is knowledgeable AND entertaining and kept us laughing. When someone in our group suggested she try stand up comedy she informed us that she was a comedian in New York City before moving to South Carolina.
The trolley makes a stop at the farm greenhouse, where new tea plants are carefully cultivated. And the trolley pauses several times during the tour so that the guide can point out interesting sights, such as the farm’s Green Giant, a one of a kind machine used to harvest tea leaves.
It’s an educational and fun tour you won’t want to miss!
It’s important to the Bigelow family to do the right thing, in all aspects of their business, including environmentally. I’m already a fan of Bigelow Tea. I love the company even more after learning that they always seek to make a difference.
They believe in protecting the environment, giving back to their community and taking care of their employees and their families.
They do not use any pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or insecticides. Because of their specially designed irrigation system, they can rely on rain and pond water to hydrate plants. And waste from making tea…the stems and fibers…become mulch in the tea fields. The mulch not only inhibits weeds and protects the soil, it breaks down over time benefitting earthworms and other insect allies.
Charleston Tea Garden Factory Tour
This free tour begins every 15 minutes, at the top of the stairs in the back of the gift shop.
The tea production factory contains a glassed in, air conditioned gallery that runs the length of the facility. As the group walks along the gallery, there are stops in front of large screens that play videos. Mr. and Mrs. Bigelow narrate the tea making process as guests look out into the factory where the equipment is.
I learned that the same tea plants produce green, black and oolong teas. It’s the processing time that determines which tea is created, with green tea requiring the least amount of time. On average, from picking the leaves to packaging the loose tea or tea bags, it only takes 20 hours of processing.
And I learned that the first growth of leaves each spring is called the First Flush. These first leaves create a unique tasting tea that is only available once during the growing season. The plants can be harvested seven to ten more times during the remainder of the season.
As an avid tea drinker, I found the whole process fascinating!
Charleston Tea Garden Gift Shop
The spacious gift shop is the place to start the factory tour or purchase tickets for the trolley. Shop for special keepsakes among the hundreds of tea related items offered for sale there, including the Charleston Tea Garden specialty teas that are 100% grown there at the farm.
You can sample teas served daily at the shop’s Tea Bar. Hot and iced teas are available. After browsing and making your purchases, take a cup of hot or iced tea out onto the covered front porch. Rocking chairs invite guests to linger for a while, rocking and sipping on tea while appreciating the beauty of the garden.
There’s also a picnic area located near the gift shop, if you want to bring a lunch.
I bought a book in the gift shop and a cute tea themed t-shirt.
What You Need to Know Before Visiting Charleston Tea Garden
The tea garden is open year around, every day of the week. Hours of operation are 10:00 am – 4:00 pm Monday through Saturday and noon – 4:00 pm on Sunday. The garden is closed on major holidays. Please see their website for a list of those holidays.
Dogs may accompany guests however they are not allowed in the gift shop or on the trolley. The wide front veranda is a good place to take turns sitting with your dog while other family members look in the gift shop or participate in tours.
The tea garden does not recommend using a ride share service. Most do not want to drive to the garden and will not wait for you while you tour the facilities. The best way to get to the garden is by car/rental car.
Restrooms are located on the property, in a separate building near the gift shop. The picnic area is located on the other side of the gift shop, in a beautiful setting amid stately live oak trees.
The Charleston Tea Garden is located at 6617 Maybank Highway on Warmalaw Island south of Charleston.
I am so grateful for the opportunity to visit and experience the tours! Have you visited this incredible property? Let me know in the comments below.
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