Plant of the Month April 2016

Camellia is a genus of flowering plants of the family Theaceae. They originate in eastern and southern Asia. The genus was named by Linnaeus after the Jesuit botanist Georg Joseph Kamel although strangely he never described a camellia.

The leaves of Camellia sinensis are processed to make the drink tea, while C. japonica C. oleifera and C. sasanqua are ornamental.

Alfons Mucha - 1896 - La Dame aux Camélias - Sarah Bernhardt

The first Camellias were introduced to England in 1739. Subsequently many new ornamentals were imported through the British East India Company.

There are now 200 to 300 species and probably 3,000 hybrids. Many named cultivars are associated with the gardeners who grew them and named for their employers. A pink flowered Camellia ‘Lady Humes Blush’ was named for Amelia the lady of Sir Abraham Hume of Wormleybury Hertfordshire in 1806.

However to focus on the present day: Anne Blessley, President of the Friends of Bushey Museum who grew many beautiful cultivars in her garden gave a number of plants to Reveley. Amongst them growing in the rose garden is a hybrid Camellia x williamsii ‘Donation’. It has a beautiful semi-double rose pink flower.

By 1840 camellias were the ‘luxury flower’ until superseded by the orchid.

Camellias are evergreen shrubs or small trees with leaves that are usually dark green and glossy. The flowers of ornamental varieties are large and can vary in colour from white through shades of pink and red. They may be single or double in form but nearly all have an abundance of yellow stamens. The fruit is a dry capsule. They prefer to grow in semi shade in acidic soil.

In addition to tea produced by selective breeding of the leaves of camellia sinensis, tea oil is obtained by pressing the seeds of camellia japonica and other species. It is a sweet oil used in cooking and is the most important cooking oil used by millions of people particularly in southern China. It is also used to protect the blades of cutting instruments and the ladies in Japan use it in their hair.

The love story of  Marguerite Gautier the courtisane inspired Dumas to write La Dame aux Camelias. She wore a white camellia when available to her lovers and a red one when her ‘delicate condition’ precluded love making.

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