IN MEMORIAM – Dr. Francis T.P. Zee, retired Research Leader and Horticulturist with the USDA in Hawaii

16m | May 10, 2024

IN MEMORIAM – Dr. Francis T.P. Zee, retired Research Leader and Horticulturist with the US Department of Agriculture, is credited with reviving the Hawaii tea industry by inspiring small growers to produce specialty tea.

Twenty-five years ago, specialty tea was grown on fewer than five acres on the Big Island of Hawaii, a remnant of the thousands of acres cultivated on large estates that flourished at the turn of the century. Today, Hawaii produces more specialty tea than any state in the U.S. thanks to an enterprising US Department of Agriculture researcher and horticulturist, Dr. Francis Zee. Zee, who was 70, passed away on March 29 in Honolulu, Hawai’i.

Zee, a black belt in Kendo martial arts, was born in Hong Kong. He received his doctorate in horticulture at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where he began working with tea cultivars for commercial production. The failure of those attempting large-scale production led him to champion specialty tea grown in harmony with the unique terroir of Hawai’i and high-altitude farms like that founded by Eva Lee and her husband, Chiu Leong. Lee collaborated with Zee at their Volcano Village farm to develop locally acclimated rootstock at her nursery, producing 25,000 saplings primarily planted on Hawai’i farms but also in demand abroad.

In 2001, Zee explained to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin how cultivating specialty tea could transform the local tea industry. “This is just the beginning,” he said. “I believe many times these things start in the backyard. It has to become a hobby first," he said, highlighting the potential for growth and expansion of the local tea industry. Eva Lee reminisces about working with Zee and describes how his vision continues to shape the future of Hawai’i tea.

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