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