Big Island Tea was born in 2001.   Our goal has been to re-establish a cloud forest ecosystem in which we grow tea.  Growing tea as constituent of an ecosystem is more sustainable and less reliant on imported inputs like fertilizer and pesticide than trying to cultivate only tea.  We have been growing 1000-+ tea trees in large  pots for two years prior to moving to Kilinoe Estate. We needed to revitalize land that had been over-taxed growing vegetables in nine commercial greenhouses (~2 acres) for 40 years. 

We make use of banana stalks  (piled at

right) for mulch under the tea trees.  The

mulch helps to recruit earth worms to the

roots of the tree; VERY good for the

health of the soil beneficial microbial

community tea, help water conservation,

as well as slowing the invasion of weeds. 

Banana stalks recruit beneficial


Banana stalks sectioned and laid under the trunks of seedlings (above left) and more mature trees (above right) aid in promoting the health of the soil communities and the ecosystem as a whole.

Bananas (above right) and “Ice Cream Bean” trees (Inga edulis, Leguminosae on left) both produce quick growing tall standing shade, ample mulch material, delicious fruit, and the Ice Cream bean is another N2 fixer that improves the available nitrogen content for the soil.  We have seven varieties of banana that each have distinctive taste, texture, and appearances. 

Composting food waste, farm clippings, and shredded

paper (under blue tarp at right) provides the farm

ample “worm castings”, which is a very rich soil

amendment.  The composted soil is used for top

dressing the plants, and the worm castings can be

made into a slurry that can be sprayed on the base of

tea tree trunk.  The slurry helps the plants to remain

healthy and helps to fight off plant disease. 

Dr. Norman Arancon, at UHH, has been studying the

beneficial uses of vermiculture (worm composting) and we recommend that anyone who wants to grow tea or other foods sustainably should try vermiculture in addition to other methods like aquaculture that incorporates “Eco-Systems Thinking”.

Big Island Tea also incorporates “Aquaponics”, which is the marriage of Aquaculture or growing fish, and Hydroponics or the use of fertilizer enriched water to grow food.  The aquaponic approach uses the fish poop enriched water to grow food or other plants.  Instead of recycling from a fish tank to a growing bed and back to the tank, we have large

fish ponds that are home to hundreds of catfish and koi.  We draw water from the ponds to irrigate the tea and other plants in our forest.  Our ponds are replenished by rain (150”+/ann). 

Cam brings a PhD in Population and

Eclogical genetics to Big Island Tea. 

Cam’s research in the ecological and

conservation genetics of local forests

has help frame why and how we create

a forest with a diverse collection of

community members.  The more

complex and interdependent we can

make our Kilinoe Forest, the more it

will be like the forest that flourished on

its own in this location for millennia (and the

more independent we become from

imported additives like fertilizers or

pesticides.  We do not use any pesticides and only use organic fertilizers that we make ourself or purchase.

Growing tea (Eliah pointing at with right hand) under the canopy of native trees (Eliah’s left hand is behind a young  `Ohi`a seedling) provides a highly stable endemic forest, of the type that has grown in this area for millennia. This provides the shaded environment in which tea produces its most beneficial health and flavor benefits for human consumption.  Recently researchers have shown in detail the biochemical differences in shade grown leaves that affect the taste and health benefits of tea (ie. tea quality).  For example, see Metabolomics Analysis Reveals the Compositional Differences of Shade Grown Tea (Camellia sinensis L.)  or Correlation between leaf age, shade levels, and characteristic beneficial natural constituents of tea (Camellia sinensis) grown in Hawaii

Colleagues in the College of Pharmacy and in the Biology Department at UHH have been studying the benefits of growing environment in the cultivation of tea (ref. above).  Dr. Tony Wright has found that tea grown in the shade has higher levels of compounds associated with delicious taste, and the health benefits of tea.  In a collaboration with Dr. Abby Cuttris, and her student, Mathew Sueda, higher expression of genes associated with taste and health benefits are seen in shade-grown leaves of tea using “real time” PCR data collected by Matt. 

What does that leaf chemistry and gene expression stuff mean “in the trenches”?  Well, a person with some land that has forest should NOT cut down the trees to grow tea but instead grow the tea within the forest, or plant a forest around tea if canopy trees are not present.  These kinds of insights can help the sustainability of tea cultivation in a highly remote location like Hawai`i.