Our 2023 EFN seed catalogue is now online! 100+ new varieties. Over 40 different growers and foragers from across the country. A million thanks to all who make this possible, especially our amazing seed-house crew!
Few Americans not of Chinese descent have any clue that the humble tea plant has a close cousin with enormous seeds brimming with delicious edible cooking oil. And yet the Tea-oil camellia is just that! Sometimes referred to as "Eastern Olive Oil," it is one of the world's four major oil-bearing tree crops (along with olive, palm, and coconut), and it's the only one that grows in temperate regions, hardy to Zone 6. [Tree nuts like hazelnut, walnut, and almond also produce edible oils, but on a far smaller scale.]
EFN co-founder Nate Kleinman was so excited when he found out Sheffield's Seeds was importing tea oil camellia seed from China that he bought five pounds of the stuff, which we're just as excitedly making available to all of you now. He'd been on the lookout for it for years, ever since first tasting tea oil purchased at a Chinese market in Philadelphia.
Tea-oil camellia was first exploited for edible oil over 2000 years ago. Today it is the main cooking oil across southern China, especially in Hunan Province, and it's exported around the world (primarily for use within Chinese communities). Oil content in the seeds can range from 24 to 53%, with an average of around 30%. Chemically, it is somewhat similar to olive oil, with high amounts of oleic and linoleic acid, zero cholesterol, zero trans-fats, and low in saturated fats, with even more vitamin E than olive oil and a whole suite of other components like polyphenols, flavonoids, and squalene, bringing with them myriad nutritional and medicinal benefits. Functionally, it's a superior high-heat cooking oil (with a higher smoke point than olive oil, coming in between 410 and 485 degrees F depending on the batch — olive oil ranges from 374 to 405F), and it has a more mild flavor, though still distinct. You might recognize the mild taste because camellia oil is often used in quality Chinese restaurants (to Nate it tastes of a great lo mein).
From an agricultural perspective, tea-oil camellia also has a lot going for it. It can be grown on marginal land, including steep slopes. It can live and produce for many decades. And it's more cold-hardy than most other camellias (including the tea camellia, Camellia sinensis). The US National Arboretum in Washington, DC had a large collection of camellias once, but a series of very cold winters destroyed or badly injured most of them. Yet the Camellia oleifera showed little to no winter injury. Consequently, cold-hardy tea oil cultivars 'Lu Shan Snow' and 'Plain Jane' are often used for breeding cold-hardy ornamental camellias. Since camellias do not grow true to type, every seed you plant of these special seeds will yield a unique individual, so you may end up growing that extra special plant with the most cold hardiness or the highest oil content or the best flavor. That's what plant breeding is all about!
As our loyal customers know, EFN exists to help shift American agriculture from being a major driver of climate change to a weapon against it. A long-lived, cold-hardy perennial like tea oil camellia could be a game-changer if planted at a large scale. It can be grown across huge swaths of the country, from coastal New England down through the Mid-Atlantic and lower Midwest, across the entire Southeast (except extreme southern Florida), South-Central states, and most of the West Coast. Instead of growing mostly genetically modified soybeans on tens of millions of acres (a record 91 million acres in 2022, to be precise, or nearly 5% of the total landmass of the continental US), with its attendant overuse of glyphosate, dicamba, and other horrifically bad chemicals, not to mention annual tillage, artificial fertilizer, and the rest, we could be growing a healthy, delicious edible oil on beautiful plants that preserve soil, create wildlife habitat (don't even get me started on the ongoing insect apocalypse), and sequester carbon every single day. That's literally the potential of tea oil camellia — if only we have the will to make it happen.
But first we've simply got to get these plants out there, get new locally adapted varieties growing, and start making people understand how important this plant could be.
GROWING TIPS: Seeds benefit from soaking for 24 hours and 60 days of cold stratification.
Here's some more information on growing Camellia oleifera from North Carolina State University Extension:
"In colder climates, it is best to plant Camellias on the north or northwest side of protective barriers such as buildings, larger plants, or hedges to minimize exposure to drying cold winds. The tea-oil Camellia can endure temperatures as cold as -10 ° F (USDA Zone 6) for brief periods. Planting in the spring gives the plant ample time to establish itself before dealing with the summer heat stress or the rigors of winter. This plant requires a partial shade location and will flower best in very light shade. It prefers acidic (pH 5.5-6.5), moist, well-drained soil. It is mildly resistant to damage by deer.
Camellias are susceptible to viruses and some fungal diseases such as dieback, cankers, flower blight, and root rot. Watch for scales, aphids, planthoppers, and spider mites which are especially problematic on stressed plants."