But on the bright side a couple of weeks touring Cornwall and seeing them as the backbone of so many amazing gardens has made me reconsider. So I’m going to pay a visit to the annual Camellia Festival at Chiswick House Conservatory which runs until March 25th and that might just completely overcome my prejudice!
So read on to investigate their history in our gardens, and also to discover an excellent newish blog by Siân Rees, a professional gardener, who has written about them this week too…
Camellias are slow-growing evergreen understory trees and individual specimens can live for several centuries. There are about 125 species, mostly from southern China, but with others from Japan Korea and Indochina.
The most famous member of the family is C. sinensis – the source of tea – which according to Chinese legend was discovered about 2700BC, although the first written references to it only date from around 500BC. Several other species have economic importance for their oils and medicinal properties, but until the establishment of the enterprising Tregothnan tea plantations in 2005 these have little place in the British economy or garden.
This post is going to concentrate on the ornamental species, although the early English plant collectors were trying to find the tea plant. However they ended up with what Shirley Hibberd called “the grandest of our conservatory and garden shrubs” but “properly neglected as possible tea-plants that nobody wants.”
Just three of the 125 species provide the bulk of those in cultivation. These are C. japonica which now has about 2000 cultivars, C. reticulata with 400 cultivars, and C. sasanqua which has about 300. There has been very little interspecific breeding, with the notable exception of C. x williamsonii [of which more later]
Like so many other plants Camellia makes its earliest appearance in western botanical literature thanks to physicians and ships surgeons employed by the various European East India Trading Companies. Andreas Cleyer worked for the Dutch East India Company at several places including their outpost of Deshima, in Nagasaki Bay and published a whole series of texts on the natural history of the region between 1682 and 1700 , including De Plantis Japanensibus. This included the first western description and image of a camellia, under its Japanese name.
A few years later James Petiver, the apothecary at the Charterhouse in London and a pioneering natural historian and botanical collector, published a description of what is now Camellia japonica in the Transactions of the Royal Society. Shortly afterwards he published a drawing of it in his Gazophylacium naturae et artis of 1702. His specimens almost certainly came via James Cunningham one of his global network of correspondents and collectors, and who had gone out to Amoy in China as a ship’s surgeon/physician for the East India Company. Petiver gave the plant a very simple and memorable name: Thea Chinensis Pimentae Jamaicaensis folio, flora Rosaceo simplici.
Ten years later in 1712, another European physician, Englebert Kaempfer, who was also at Deshima in Japan published Amoenitatum exoticarum which included descriptions of many Japanese plants including several sorts of Tsubakki or camellia. Naming it the Japanese rose he related that although it grew wild in woodlands and hedgerows, many other more refined varieties had been selected by the Japanese for their gardens.
So if they were first called Tsubakki or Thea why are they now called camellias? That’s the fault of Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae in 1735. The fact that he’d never seen a specimen did not stop him classifying it and naming it from the descriptions given by these earlier writers. He gave the honour to George Joseph Kamel – the Latinized version of his name is Camellus -who had no connection with the plant whatsoever!
Kamel was Moravian by birth, trained as an apothecary and in 1682 became a Jesuit missionary working first in the Marianas and then the Philippines. There he founded a botanical garden and corresponded with European scholars in both Europe and Asia including Petiver and his fellow member of the Royal Society, the naturalist John Ray about the natural history of the Philippines. Ray published some of Kamel’s work as an appendix to his own Historia Plantarum in 1704, while the remainder of his works appeared the Philosophical Transactions. [If you are interested in reading these follow this link] But camellias don’t grow in the Philippines and Kamel had never been to China or japan so probably never even saw one.
The first camellias in Britain were probably grown from seed at Thorndon Hall in Essex, the seat of an extremely wealthy horticultural enthusiast Lord Petre who had a range of “such stoves [hothouses] the world never saw, nor may ever again”. The Great Stove was probably the largest in the world at the time, standing 30ft high and enabled Petre and his gardener James Gordon to raise many exotic species from seed following the techniques suggested by Philip Miller of Chelsea Physic Garden with beds of tanner’s bark that rotted to create the high soil temperatures required. Both red and white camellias were flowering at Thorndon by 1739, and in 1745 one of them appeared in print in George Edwards A Natural History of Birds. as the perch for a pheasant.Edwards adds: “The Flower here figured, by Way of Decoration, is called the Chinese Rose: I drew it from Nature; it is what we see most frequently painted in Chinese Pictures: it blows wider that a Rose and is of a red Rose Colour, with the Stems in the Middle of a Yellow or Gold Colour. The green Leaves were stiff, firm and smooth, like those of Ever-greens. This beautiful flowering Tree was raised by the late curious and noble Lord Petre in his Stoves at Thorndon-Hall in Essex.”
Lord Petre died young in 1743 and his heir was not terribly interested in gardens or plants, so the gardener James Gordon left Thorndon and set up as a nurseryman at Mile End on the eastern outskirts of London. He took camellias with him and was the first to introduce them into the commercial trade.
But for most people, even the elite, their earliest ideas about camellias would not have come from obscure botanical texts or even a plant acquired from James Gordon. Instead it would have been from their appearance on their walls since camellias were often portrayed on imported Chinese wallpapers. These wallpapers excited western interest in the plants [and birds] displayed in them.
The boom in the tea trade dominated by the East India Company helped expedite this and in 1788 the camellia featured in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. Up until this point the camellia had been treated as a hothouse rarity, and a comment by Curtis helps explains why. He claimed only “the high price at which it has hitherto been sold” has prevented it being “hazarded” as an outdoor plant like the Magnolia.
Curtis was right of course in his surmise that the camellia wasn’t as tender as suspected. Over the next few decades his magazine included several other new camellia species and cultivars and in 1814 reported that the single camellia featured in 1788 “is now found hardy enough to bear being exposed during the winter in the open air.” Probably the first place this was tried was at Tregothnan in Cornwall.
This is where I’m going to stop writing about Curtis’s Botanical Magazine and camellias and suggest that for more info on that you switch to looking at Sian’s comprehensive account in her recent post.
The first book specifically about camellias was published as early as 1819. This was A Monograph on the Genus Camellia by William Curtis’s cousin and son-in-law Samuel Curtis. With just 5 beautifully produced plates unfortunately it is now usually only found dismembered and framed.
But, of course Camellias set seed, and although its germinates reasonably easily it can take ten years or more to flower, and the results can produce very variable offspring. What this meant was that as more people had access to imported or home grown seed, and the technology and knowledge to cultivate them correctly the number of cultivars increased rapidly.
By 1830 nurseryman Alfred Chandler published the first volume of Illustrations and descriptions of the plants which compose the natural order Camellieae and of the varieties of Camellia japonica, cultivated in the gardens of Great Britain . It contained forty “accurately drawn and coloured representations of the best Camellias known…” Chandler’s drawings were mostly based on examples of camellia grown by at the nursery at Vauxhall run by his father. A second planned volume was never published, but implies that there a large number of other cultivars already in existence.
Some of these new cultivars were named after commissioners of imports, patrons, or the captains of ships who brought them back. There was, for example, “Lady Hume’s Blush” a pale pink named for the chatelaine of Wormleybury in Hertfordshire in 1806, whilst a double red named after ‘Floating Bob’ [Sir Robert] Preston, who rescued his family’s finances with a fortune made in the naval service of the East India Company. Another was Captain Rawes pretty obviously named after an Eastindiaman’s master. This was the first Camellia reticulata introduced, whilst the first Camellia sasanqua was “Lady Banks’s Camellia”. [Unfortunately Chandlers book is not available on-line but there is a full list of the 40 different sorts he included on this booksellers site].
One of Chandler’s clients was the 6th Duke of Devonshire. [read more here] In 1828, he bought camellias from Chandler for his magnificent conservatory at Chiswick which had been built as early as 1813 [30 years before the Palm House at Kew] to grow exotic fruit. Of course, once the Duke discovered camellias the fruit was ousted.
In an interview in the Telegraph in Feb 2011, the then head gardener at Chiswick, Fiona Crumley, explained that of the 16 varieties Alfred Chandler listed as being the earliest imports from China, eight survive in the Chiswick collection, [together with a ninth ‘Parksii’ which Chandler added to the list in a later edition]. There are another six varieties which were raised from seed around 1815. “The girth of some of these trees, especially ‘Chandleri’ and ‘Rubra Plena’, suggests they could well date from the 1820s, while some others dating from the 1850s may well have been propagated from earlier plantings. There may have been more that we don’t know about. What is certain is that these are some of the oldest, rarest camellias in the West. It’s a miracle they have survived.” Another, even rarer survival there is ‘Middlemist’s Red’ [even though it’s actually deep pink!] brought to Britain from China in 1804 by John Middlemist, a nurseryman from Shepherds Bush, and acquired for Chiswick sometime after 1823.
As Robin Lane Fox remarked: the “bachelor duke” was truly a Duc aux Camélias” and he helped make the camellia the height of its fashion as the luxury flower.
But every good thing has its day, and for camellias the fashion peaked in the 1840s with Alexander Dumas’ La Dame aux camélias and Verdi’s La Traviata. After that Camellias ceded top spot outdoors to rhododendrons and in the hothouse to orchids, which were imported in large numbers thanks to the invention of the Wardian case. By the end of the century they had, according to Noel Kingsbury, [Garden Flora, p.75] virtually disappeared from nursery catalogues.
A revival of interest was boosted greatly when J.C.Willaims of Caerhayes Castle successfully crossed C.japonica with C.saluensis, newly introduced by George Forrest, to create a series of hybrids which became Camellia x williamsii in his honour. Although bred in the 1920s and 1930s they were not introduced into commercial cultivation until the 1940s. They are very hardy, flower extremely well but then shed the faded blooms rather than letting them go brown on the bush. What a breakthrough!
All we need now is for someone to introduce the scent gene although that would spoil the advice given by the late Duke of Devonshire on how to spot a real gardener, and reported in the Daily Telegraph in Feb 2003: “If I may be bossy enough to give you a good tip, my dear, it is that you can always tell a non-gardener by someone who smells a camellia. Because they don’t smell.”
For more information on camellias check the website of the International Camellia Society.