Wednesday Weed – Camellia

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate.  Who knows what we will find…..

Camellia japonica

Dear Readers, it might seem strange to be in love with a plant, but I am enraptured with the white camellia that lives in a pot right outside my back door. I have tried to create a shade garden in the dreary north-facing side return there, and Dad gifted me with this plant several years ago. I know that it isn’t good for pollinators (my usual reason for planting something).  I know that in a bad year, the blossoms go brown almost before they’ve opened because of cold weather or rain. But still, I find it exquisitely beautiful, with its shiny green leaves and sunburst of yellow stamens in the centre of all that ivory-white.

Every time I see it, it reminds me of Dad. I think of how he taught me to transplant seedlings, picking them up with his big brown hands and handling them with such tender care. It makes me sad to think that, because of the neuropathy in his hands, he can now barely handle a knife and fork, though he would be the last one to dwell on such things. He deals with things by getting on with it does my Dad, and he doesn’t seem to think about what he used to be able to do. Everyone copes with things differently, but this is his way, and it seems to work for him. My parents come from a class and a generation when it wasn’t done to analyse things too much, because what was the point?  No one outside your immediate family and community was going to help.

The camellia is also known as the Rose of Winter, and in the mountainous areas of its native China, South Korea and Japan it blooms between January and March. In my back garden, its buds open from mid March onwards, although the snow that we’ve had this week will be slowing it up a bit.

In Japan, the flower is pollinated by the Japanese white-eye, a small bird.

Photo One by DickDaniels (http://carolinabirds.org/)

Japanese white-eyes courting (Zosterops japonicus) (Photo One)

Most camellia species need acidic soil, hence the fact that my plant is growing in a pot – the clay in my garden would certainly not be to the plant’s taste. There are, however, a few Vietnamese camellias that live in the limestone karst area of the country, and which are more amenable to alkaline soils.

Vietnam is also home to the endangered yellow camellia, Camellia chrysantha. Apparently breeders have been trying for years to get a yellow camellia which also flowers abundantly, and even in China and Japan they have largely failed – the yellow species tend to have small, downward-facing flowers, and to be extremely picky about where they grow.

Photo Two by By self - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3720312

Camellia chrysantha, the yellow camellia (Photo Two)

As you will know, the garden camellia is closely related to Camellia sinensis, the tea plant, and tea can be made with the leaves of Camellia japonica. For the full details of how to do it, have a look at the Taurus Rising blog here. However, as a synopsis, you need to pick the youngest three leaves at the top of a stem, rub the leaves between your hands to crumble them, and then sort out the stems from the leaves. The crumbled leaves are left for a couple of days and are moved around periodically to aerate them before they are dried in a low oven. The conclusion was that the resulting brew was pretty high in caffeine, and ‘delicate’ in flavour – the authors thought that the leaves could have been left for a few more days to mature and deepen the taste.

Personally, I still want my camellia to grow, so will wait a bit longer before I start nipping off the stem tips. Camellias grow fast (up to 30 cm a year) and can live a long time (there are camellias in Portugal that are thought to be 460 years old). In time, they can turn into a magnificent tree – there are a couple in a front garden in Tufnell Park that are absolutely gob-smacking, as tall as the second storey window and covered in red and pink blooms every spring. I don’t have a photo of those trees, but the one below, from Hyde Hall in Essex, gives you an idea.

Photo Three by By Acabashi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Camellia tree at RHS Hyde Hall (Photo Three)

Or you can torment your camellia until it becomes a bonsai if you’re that way inclined. As I’ve mentioned before, I admire the skill and persistence that it takes to create a miniature tree like this, but I feel a kind of empathy for the plant, who surely ‘wants’ to be ten metres high.

Photo Four by Sage Ross (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Japanese camellia as a bonsai (Photo Four)

The flowers of the camellia have been used in herbal medicine to treat various blood-related ailments, and are also widely reported to be mixed with sesame oil as a salve for burns and scalds. I was always taught not to plaster burns with creams, but there you go. The seeds of the related species Camellia oleifera are used to create a cooking oil that is very widely used in Southern China, and apparently you can do the same with Camellia japonica.

In Japan, the Emperor carried a staff made from camellia wood to fend off the evil eye, and flowers are said to represent business success, virtue, happiness, fidelity, luxury, tastefulness, & a life concluding in the ease of retirement. In China, the flower is said to represent the union of male and female, with the petals representing the female principle, and the green calyx representing the male. Typically, when a flower falls the calyx remains on the stem, but in camellias both fall away together. It is said that both male and female attributes are needed for wholeness (as in yin and yang) and I’m not going to argue with that.

The flowers of the camellia have always been seen as expensive, rare, and slightly decadent. Probably the most famous literary representation of the plant is La Dame aux Camelias, by Alexandre Dumas. It tells the story of a young man in love with a courtesan, Marguerite Gautier, who is dying of consumption. In real life, the courtesan was Marie Duplessis, Duma’s lover. In the novel, Marguerite gets her epithet ‘the lady of the camellias’ because she wears a red camellia when she is menstruating (and hence unavailable) and a white one the rest of the time. The book rapidly became a play, and then the opera La Traviata. In the cinema, the role of Marguerite has been played by actresses as varied as Greta Garbo, Theda Bara (the original ‘Vamp’) and Isabelle Adjani.

Photo Five by By Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (work for hire) - [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18170161

Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor in the 1936 film ‘Camille’ (Photo Five)

As you might expect, in the pictorial arts the camellia has been a great favourite with Dutch still life painters. However, I also like the elegant depictions of the plant from China and Japan, such as this painting by Lu Ji from the sixteenth century.

Pheasant and Camellia shrub by Lu Ji (Public Domain)

Finally, for our burst of poetry this week, I’d like to present two poems. The first, by American poet Carol Snow, is short and simple, at least at first glance.

Tour

Near a shrine in Japan he'd swept the path
and then placed camellia blossoms there.

Or — we had no way of knowing — he'd swept the path
between fallen camellias.

—Carol Snow

The second is by French writer Honore de Balzac, and it seems to reinforce that theme of the camellia as a hothouse flower, suitable only for ballrooms and to grace the hair of beautiful women.

The Camellia

In Nature’s poem flowers have each their word

The rose of love and beauty sings alone;

The violet’s soul exhales in tenderest tone;

The lily’s one pure simple note heard.

The cold Camellia only, stiff and white,

Rose without perfume, lily without grace,

When chilling winter shows his icy face,

Blooms for a world that vainly seeks delight.

Yet, in a theatre, or ball-room light,

I gladly see Camellias shining bright

Above some stately woman’s raven hair,

Whose noble form fulfills the heart’s desire,

Like Grecian marbles warmed by Phidian fire.

For me, the camellia is a symbol of endurance, flowering in the earliest part of the year, before even the daffodils have gotten going. It asks for little, and gives so much. And it will always represent my father’s love, and his persistence, and his uncomplaining straightforwardness. It is the first thing that I see when I step into the garden from the kitchen, and it never fails to make me smile and feel grateful. It might be a ‘lily without grace’ to Balzac, but it’s full of grace for me.
Photo Credits
Photo One by Photo One by DickDaniels (http://carolinabirds.org/)
Photo Two by By self – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3720312
Photo Three by By Acabashi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Four by Sage Ross (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Five by By Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (work for hire) – [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18170161

13 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Camellia

  1. tonytomeo

    Camellias were our third major crop. While ordering stock plants from a grower in Altadena, I asked for a single ‘Purity’ white camellia for the landscape, but when the order arrived, I got ten! It was an old fashioned cultivar, but is still quite popular. I was told it was the flower that Coco Chanel word; although it seems like an odd choice, since they fall from their stems so easily, and they are too heavy to pin to clothing without sagging.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      So interesting, Tony. What were crops one and two? I love the single camellias much more than the double ones, I must admit. And yes, I’d forgotten about Coco Chanel – I guess the material for her trademark little suits was very robust, so maybe the camellia worked as a buttonhole (briefly :-))

      Reply
      1. tonytomeo

        We grew rhododendrons and azaleas. We probably grew more pieris than camellias for a while. Pieris are more fun to grow, but not as marketable as camellias are. Camellia reticulata was not popular at all, and I did not even like growing it. They were so big and awkward. The Single Camellia japonicas were my favorite because they are what I am most familiar with. Our most popular whit was a big double that was too heavy to stand up straight. It was funny to see how popular ‘Purity’ was once it became available. We would have grown it sooner if we would have known that.

      2. Bug Woman Post author

        So, Tony, I’m guessing the soil was naturally ericaceous? I’m just trying out a most unusual white/blush pink rhododendron in a pot in the shady bit by the side of the house, it will be interesting to see how it does….

      3. tonytomeo

        It is synthetic media (soil) that does happen to be ericaceous (although we do not call it that). The endemic soil in the arboretum and stock plant area is quite good for what we grow too. The funny thing about that word is that it sounds like it refers to the family of rhododendrons, azaleas, pieris and some of our main crops, except for camellias. They are in the family of Ericaceae, so are Ericaceous.

  2. Fran and Bobby Freelove

    We too love Camellias, i have half a dozen different varieties in pots because,like you here in Hertfordshire we have clay soil. A little while back when we were in a plant nursery we commented on a lovely Camellia, when we looked at the label it was called Mary Williams, our late mother’s name, so of course we had to buy it. So you have one that reminds you of your father and we have one that reminds us of our late mother, plants can bring back lots of memories.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      How lovely, Fran and Bobby…what does the Mary Williams camellia look like? I love the way that plants bring back so many memories…..

      Reply
    2. Fran and Bobby Freelove

      It’s quite vigorous, lovely dark glossy leaves with dark pink single to semi-double flowers that open to have lovely yellow stamens.

      Reply
  3. Liz Norbury

    When I was writing an article about the magnificent camellia collection at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, I was interested to learn that when the first specimens were brought to Cornwall from Canton 200 years ago, they were thought to be fragile flowers which would only survive in glasshouses. In fact, the climate here suited them so well that another great Cornish garden, Tregothnan, now has a thriving tea plantation. Even here in Hayle, where the soil is unusually alkaline for Cornwall, there were camellias in full bloom in our riverside public garden in the early days of January – a cheerful sight on a cold, dark morning. The head gardener told me that for some reason, ericaceous plants seem to feel at home in this one corner of the garden.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Fascinating stuff, Liz, thank you! I was reading about Tregothnan in The Garden magazine recently. Cornwall has many wonderful gardens, I shall have to have a trip at some point…

      Reply

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