When we say “Camellia” an image of gorgeous flower pops up in your mind. Right. This fragrant, rose-like flower is considered one of the most beautiful blossoming plants in the world. But would you be surprised to know that fresh tea that we drink every day is made out of camellia leaves? Actually, we were.
Camellia is a genus of flowering plants in the family Theaceae. They are found in eastern and southern Asia, from the Himalaya east to Japan and Indonesia. There are 100–250 described species, with some controversy over the exact number. The genus was named by Linnaeus after the Jesuit botanist Georg Joseph Kamel from Brno, who worked in the Philippines, though he never described a camellia.
Among the ornamental species, the Japanese Camellia (Camellia japonica) and Camellia sasanqua are perhaps the most widely known, though most camellias grown for their flowers are cultivars or hybrids.
Camellias are evergreen shrubs and trees up to 20m tall. Their leaves are alternately arranged, simple, thick, serrated, and usually glossy. Their flowers are usually large and conspicuous, one to 12cm in diameter, with five to nine petals in naturally occurring species of camellias. Camellia appears in two main colours, red and white, with an occasional pink specimen resulting from cross-breeding of the two flower colors. Truly yellow flowers are found only in South China and North Vietnam. Camellia flowers throughout the genus are characterized by a dense bouquet of conspicuous yellow stamens, often contrasting with the petal colors. The so-called “fruit” of camellia plants is a dry capsule, sometimes subdivided in up to five compartments, each compartment containing up to eight seeds.
The various species of camellia plants are generally well-adapted to acidic soils rich in humus, and most species do not grow well on chalky soil or other calcium-rich soils. Most species of camellias also require a large amount of water, either from natural rainfall or from irrigation, and the plants will not tolerate droughts. However, some of the more unusual camellias – typically species from karst soils in Vietnam can grow without too much water.
Camellia plants usually have a rapid growth rate. Typically they will grow about 30cm per year until mature – though this does vary depending on their variety and geographical location.
Camellia Is a Tea Plant
The most famous member – though often not recognized as a camellia – is certainly the tea plant (Camellia sinensis). Camellia sinensis is the species of plant whose leaves and leaf buds are used to produce the popular beverage tea. White tea, green tea, oolong, pu-erh tea and black tea are all harvested from this species, but are processed differently to attain different levels of oxidation. Kukicha (twig tea) is also harvested from Camellia sinensis, but uses twigs and stems rather than leaves. Common names include tea plant, tea tree, and tea shrub.
Camellia sinensis, the tea plant, is of major commercial importance because tea is made from its leaves. While the finest teas are produced by C. sinensis courtesy of millennia of selective breeding of this species, many other camellias can be used to produce a similar beverage. For example, in some parts of Japan, tea made from Christmas Camellia (C. sasanqua) leaves is popular.
Tea oil is a sweet seasoning and cooking oil made by pressing the seeds of the Oil-seed Camellia (C. oleifera), the Japanese Camellia, and to a lesser extent other species.
Camellias were cultivated in the gardens of China and Japan for centuries before they were seen in Europe. The German botanist Engelbert Kaempfer reported that the “Japan Rose”, as he called it, grew wild in woodland and hedgerow, but that many superior varieties had been selected for gardens. He was told that the plant had 900 names in Japanese. Europeans’ earliest views of camellias must have been their representations in Chinese painted wallpapers, where they were often represented growing in porcelain pots.
The first living camellias seen in England were a single red and a single white, grown and flowered in his garden at Thorndon Hall, Essex, by Robert James, Lord Petre, among the keenest gardeners of his generation, in 1739. His gardener James Gordon was the first to introduce camellias to commerce, from the nurseries he established after Lord Petre’s untimely death in 1743, at Mile End, Essex, near London.
With the expansion of the tea trade in the later 18th century, new varieties began to be seen in England, imported through the British East India Company. The Company’s John Slater was responsible for the first of the new camellias, double ones, in white and a striped red, imported in 1792. Further camellias imported in the East Indiamen were associated with the patrons whose gardeners grew them: a double red for Sir Robert Preston in 1794 and the pale pink named “Lady Hume’s Blush” for Amelia, the lady of Sir Abraham Hume of Wormleybury, Hertfordshire (1806). By 1819, twenty-five camellias had bloomed in England; that year the first monograph appeared, Samuel Curtis’s, A Monograph on the Genus Camellia, whose five handsome folio colored illustrations have usually been removed from the slender text and framed. Camellias that set seed, though they did not flower for more than a decade, rewarded their growers with a wealth of new varieties. By the 1840s, the camellia was at the height of its fashion as the luxury flower.
The fashionable imbricated formality of prized camellias was an element in their decline, replaced by the new hothouse orchid. Their revival after World War I as woodland shrubs for mild climates has been paralleled by the rise in popularity of Camellia sasanqua.
Camellia japonica is valued for its flowers, which can be single, semi-double or double flowered. There are more than 2,000 cultivars developed from C. japonica. The shade of the flowers can vary from red to pink to white; they sometimes have multi-coloured stripes or specks. Cultivars include ‘Elegans’ with large pink flowers which often have white streaks, ‘Guilio Nuccio’ with red to pinkish petals and yellow stamens, ‘Mathotiana Alba’ with pure white flowers, and the light crimson semi-double-flowered ‘The Czar’.
C. japonica ‘Alba Plena’ is nicknamed the “Bourbon Camellia”. Captain Connor of the East Indiaman, brought the flower to England in 1792. The flowers are pure white and about 3 to 4 inches across. It blooms earlier than most cultivated camellias, in the early winter or spring, and can flower for 4 to 5 months.
The zig-zag camellia or C. japonica ‘Unryu’ has different zig-zag branching patterns. “Unryu” means “dragon in the clouds” in Japanese; the Japanese believe it looks like a dragon climbing up to the sky. Another type of rare camellia is called the fishtail camellia or C. japonica ‘Kingyo-tsubaki’. The tips of the leaves of this plant resemble a fish’s tail.
Planting and Growing Conditions and Tips
Camellias are a very attractive low maintenance trees and shrubs. They grow in warm or cold areas in well-drained soil that is protected from direct sunlight. Your camellia will grow best in these conditions:
- Soil: Well-drained acidic soil (pH 6.0 to 6.5). Do not plant in waterlogged areas. Add plenty of organic matter to the planting hole to improve drainage.
- Light: Camellias are woodland plants that grow best in shelter and light shade, although with careful watering they can be grown in sunny positions.
- Water: Keep camellias watered, but not soggy. Water your plant regularly. Camellias need regular predictable, watering to survive. As with all plants, regular watering allows plants to thrive, fight off disease and increase their resistance to pests. Water deeply to encourage deeper, more drought-tolerant roots. Water well before a hard freeze to prevent cold damage. Camellias are moderate drinkers and not particularly drought-tolerant, although older plants are more adaptable. Tap water, especially in hard water districts, often contains too much calcium for camellias, reducing the acidity around the roots over time. Rain water is ideal for watering camellias. If rain water runs out, tap water is satisfactory for a month or two in summer.
- Pruning: Prune Camellia japonica after the spring bloom. Prune Camellia sasanqua in very early spring, before flower buds form. Usually all that’s needed is a light shaping, and pinching off the tips of branches will encourage more fullness.
- Fertilizing: After they finish blooming, feed camellias lightly with a balanced fertilizer, or with a fertilizer designed for acid-loving plants. Use fertilizer sparingly as camellias do not require a lot of extra food. For better absorption, apply fertilizer in a wide circle around the shrub’s drip line, rather than concentrating it around the trunk. Feed camellias with acidic fertilizers, such as sulphate of ammonia or sulphate of potash.
- Propagating: Camellias are most easily propagated by softwood cuttings, air layering, or grafting.
- Blooming: Increase watering during bloom time to encourage full blossoms. As an optional practice, some growers remove flower buds (called “debudding”) to promote larger, showier blooms. To do this, you can simply remove a bud that is touching another, or you can remove all the interior buds and just leave the ones on the tips of the branches.
- Mulching: Camellias need several inches of mulch to keep moisture levels and temperatures constant, but make sure the mulch doesn’t touch the trunk of the plant.
Camellias need to be planted a little high, so that the top of the root ball is level with the surface of the soil. This helps water drain away from the trunk. Camellia roots are shallow, so avoid planting them under shallow-rooted shade trees such as birch and maple. They are often grown in the light shade of tall, deep-rooted pine trees. Smaller varieties can be grown in containers. Use a potting mix designed for camellias, azaleas, or rhododendrons for best results.
Camellias make lovely container-grown plants and this is a particularly good method if your garden soil is too alkaline for camellias. The soil-less potting media, including peat-free potting composts, are suitable for camellia growing. However these composts can lose their structure over time leading to poor drainage and an airless root environment, causing leaves to brown and die back. Re-potting every other year into fresh potting compost is recommended. In the intervening year, replace the top 5cm (2in) of compost. You can re-pot back into the same pot if you trim off up to a third of the roots to make room for fresh potting compost.
Despite being easy to grow, camellias are occasionally subject to problems. Flowers can be damaged by rain and frost, but camellia petal blight may also be involved. Like many evergreen plants camellias are vulnerable to windy, cold or wet weather, developing wind scorch, oedema or a coating of algae on the leaves.
Nutrient deficiencies may cause yellowing foliage where alkaline soil (usually greater than pH6.5) prevents uptake of certain nutrients.
Camellias can succumb to pests and diseases, including Camellia yellow mottle virus, vine weevil (especially those grown in pots), camellia cushion scale, camellia gall and the root diseases Phytophthora and honey fungus.
As with all evergreen shrubs, leaves are replaced every few years; each year a proportion of the foliage (mainly older leaves near the base and within the plant) are shed, usually in spring and summer. This is normal and not a cause for concern.
Failure to flower and loss of flower buds are common problems, but can be avoided by providing good growing conditions:
- Water during dry spells in late summer when flower buds are forming
- Mulch with an 8-10cm (3-4in) layer of chipped bark or leaf mould in late winter or early spring to conserve water around the roots
- Move container-grown camellias out from under the eaves of the house in late summer or autumn so that they catch the rainfall
- Do not feed camellias later than the end of July, as excessive or late feeding can lead to bud drop
- Some natural bud drop may occur where too many buds have formed, particularly with double-flowered cultivars. This should not be excessive and is nothing to worry about
- Protect tender cultivars with a double layer of horticultural fleece in winter, as low temperatures can lead to bud drop
Camellias have been grown in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam as a garden plant for thousands of years. It is very popular and highly respected in Southwest China. Camellia symbolized purity and longevity in Asia; in Japan, its name means “excellence without pretension”.
Camellia is the Samurais Flower
Higo Camellias are a group of Camellia japonica cultivars that were indeed bred, selected and cherished by Samurais and their families. They take their name from the old Japanese province of Higo, which is now Kumamoto prefecture. There are several characteristics that distinguish these Camellias from others. The most important being lots of showy, exposed stamens (the more the better) that are arrayed in a sunburst pattern. The Japanese refer to this pattern as ume-jin, with ume from the word for Flowering Apricot (Prunus mume) and its similarly patterned stamens. Jin means soul or spirit, so with Camellias blooming in the cold of winter they came to symbolize the Samurai’s bravery. Another important characteristic of Higo Camellias are flat, splayed back petals, few in number, often asymmetric, so as to call more attention to the perfect display of stamens. Another characteristic is the clean drop of spent blossoms. Higos were traditionally planted adjacent to the Samurai’s burial place so that the fallen flowers could adorn the grave. As well as being a favored garden plant, they were also used extensively in bonsai.
Tsubaki is Japanese for camellia, a flower. It is a common given name for Japanese women, and a Japanese surname.
Legend about Camellias
On the origin of camellias in the ground there is a legend. Eros (Cupid), satiated with love goddesses of Olympus and the earth will give his mother Venus (Aphrodite) has recommended to deny to another planet. Saturn, he heard the chorus of voices are harmless, and noticed the beautiful ladies with beautiful white body, a silver-haired and clear-blue eyes. They sang praise to God that he gave them a body of ice, Coy calms drive and puts every volition. They looked at Eros, watch his beauty, but not addicted to them. In vain he shot their own arrows. Then in the gloom, he rushed over to Aphrodite saying about such uncharacteristic ladies. The ladies were obliged to leave the territory and be reincarnated as a flower. And some fascinating data, but the cold-blooded creation, and reincarnated as a camellia. So, camellia became an emblem of coldness and callousness of feelings, an emblem of beautiful, but heartless women whom, without loving, entice and ruin.
The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas
The Lady of the Camellias (French: La Dame aux camélias) is a novel by Alexandre Dumas, first published in 1848. The theme of the Lady of the Camellias is a love story between Marguerite Gautier, a “demi-mondaine” suffering from tuberculosis (“phthisie” in the novel), and a young provincial bourgeois, Armand Duval. The narration of the love story is told by Duval himself to the (unnamed) narrator of the book. The novel was subsequently adapted for the stage. The Lady of the Camellias premiered at the Théâtre du Vaudeville in Paris on February 2, 1852. The play was an instant success, and Giuseppe Verdi immediately set about putting the story to music. His work became the 1853 opera La Traviata, with the female protagonist, Marguerite Gautier, renamed Violetta Valéry.
In the English-speaking world, The Lady of the Camellias became known as Camille and 16 versions have been performed at Broadway theatres alone. The title character is Marguerite Gautier, who is based on Marie Duplessis, the real-life lover of author Alexander Dumas.
Marie Duplessis was a French courtesan and mistress to a number of prominent and wealthy men. She was an extremely attractive young woman, with a petite figure and an enchanting smile. “I love sugared grapes because they are tasteless, camellias because they are smell-less, rich men because they are heartless” Marie Duplessis died of tuberculosis at the age of 23. Her funeral in Montmartre cemetery, where her body still rests, was said to have been lavish, and attended by hundreds of people with camellia flowers.
Alfons Mucha’s La Dame aux camélias
Alfons Maria Mucha (24 July 1860 – 14 July 1939), known in English as Alphonse Mucha, was a Czech Art Nouveau painter and decorative artist, known best for his distinct style. He produced many paintings, illustrations, advertisements, postcards, and designs.
Sacramento, California is nicknamed the Camellia City
The first Camellias reached Sacramento, February 7, 1852, according to A.E. Morrison, Sacramento County Agricultural Commissioner. They were imported from Japan by James L.L.F. Warren, a seed store proprietor, at Front and J Streets. The first camellia show was held in April 1924. In 1941 Sacramento adopted the camellia as the city’s official flower. The Camellia Society of Sacramento was born in 1943. During Camellia Week of February 20th to 25th, 1950, the Camellia Society had a goal of urging residents to plant up to 50,000 new camellias. Cooperation of 10 local nurseries, 20 local stores and three newspapers came to the aid of the society in order to accomplish this goal. The plants were to sell for $1.50 each. This, indeed made Sacramento the Camellia City of the world.
The Camellia is the state flower of Alabama
A bill introduced in the 1927 legislature by Representative T. E. Martin, Montgomery County, making the goldenrod the state flower, became a law on September 6, 1927. House Bill 124, approved August 26, 1959, amended Section 8, Title 55, of the Code of 1940, to read: “The camellia is hereby designated and named as the state flower of Alabama.” (Acts 1927, No. 541.) In June 1999, the Legislature designated that the camellia, Camellia japonica L., is the official state flower of Alabama.
Chanel’s Iconic Symbol
Camellia buds are an iconic symbol for the Chanel fashion house’s haute couture; a tradition started by Coco Chanel herself. It was inspired by the camellia japonica alba plena, Coco Chanel’s favourite flower once given to her by the love of her life, Boy Capel.
Yet her originality would hit on one emblem, the camellia, which in her hands became a necklace, a watch, a hat, a chignon, a detail on a button, or just a silk flower pinned to a dress. There was something radically simple about its shape, its perfect, almost geometric roundness. As far back as 1922 a stylized camellia is embroidered on a blouse. Every season it appears as a jewelled monogram on a toe or beaded outline on the heel of a Chanel shoe. Like the lotus in Buddhism, the camellia expressed for Chanel a shape with infinite possibilities.
The plant was one of Coco Chanel’s key inspirations: it featured heavily in her apartment, scattered on Coromandel screens, chandeliers and bouquets with rock-crystal and in many of her designs. It has since become one of the house’s key symbols, appearing in clothing, accessories and now, skincare, chosen for its exceptional hydrating performance, helping the skin replenish and retain moisture.
The Chiswick House Camellia Collection
The Chiswick House Camellia collection, is a national treasure and probably the oldest in the Western world. It includes rare and historically important examples of these beautiful plants, with a fabulous array of blooms; pink, red, white and striped many of them descended from the original planting in 1828. Among these is the unique Middlemist’s Red, originally brought to Britain from China in 1804 by Londoner John Middlemist, a nurseryman from Shepherds Bush. It is one of only two in the world known to exist – the other being in Waitangi in New Zealand. What better way to satisfy our thirst for Spring than a celebration of new bloom?
- Rabindranath Tagore wrote a poem entitled “Camellia” about the camellia.
- To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel by Harper Lee published in 1960. It was immediately successful, winning the Pulitzer Prize, and has become a classic of modern American literature. In the book, Jem destroys Mrs. Dubose’s camellia bushes out of anger due to some insensitive comments she’d made about his family. Later on in the book, Jem is given a Camellia bud by the dying Mrs. Dubose.
- Camellias have a major significance in the Akira Kurosawa film Sanjuro.