From the time I was in pigtails growing up in Louisiana, my father would lead me outside every January to inspect his ‘Purple Dawn' (Camellia japonica). There it grew in majestic solitude by the driveway, beaming its deep red flowers at passersby when the rest of the garden was brown and grey.
After duly admiring the new blooms, Dad would clip off one to float in a shallow dish on the dining room table. We could enjoy one of those crimson blossoms each evening for six weeks or more, since camellias, unlike azaleas, just keep unfurling new flowers. I’ve since learned that “Purple Dawn” is a popular name for two camellias, each with an impressive lineage — ‘Mathotiana,’ named by a Belgian breeder in 1847, and ‘Julia Drayton,’ a sport of ‘Mathotiana,’ developed at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in South Carolina in 1908.
Origins of the Camellia
Like many of America’s favorite plants, the camellia is native to Asia. One tradition holds that Europeans and Americans first wanted the plants for commercial cultivation — Camellia sinensis for tea and Camellia oleifera for seed oil used in cooking and cosmetics. Instead of supplying these species, which produce understated little flowers, the Chinese slipped traders plants and seeds of showy C. japonica and blowsy-headed Camellia reticulata.
Some reports have camellias in Europe as early as the 16th century. We know for certain that they were in England by the early 18th century and in America soon after. While southerners struggled in vain to turn the tea plant into a cash crop, growers in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast were having better luck growing their more floriferous cousins in the greenhouse as florist plants. As specialty nurseries and camellia-smitten individuals created new cultivars in the 1840s, the plant caught on as a garden plant in the antebellum South.
The oldest camellia plant in the South dates from even earlier and grows at Middleton Plantation near Charlotte, South Carolina. Andre Michaud, the French plant explorer, presented camellias to his friend, Henry Middleton, in the mid-1700s. No one is certain how many camellias Middleton received, but he planted one at each corner of his parterre garden. Of these, a double red, ‘Reines des Fleurs’ (Queen of Flowers) survives.
The Civil War put an end to grand southern landscapes, but the cold-challenged camellia, with its waxen leaves and elegant flowers, was the ideal plant for coddling in Victorian greenhouses. Artists rendered them in watercolors; needleworkers embroidered them on silk and damask; belles wore them to balls. Western plant hunters scoured the globe for new plants to record and propagate. By early in the 20th century, when things Victorian were no longer admired and World War I was closing down conservatories, camellias were almost forgotten, except perhaps on the West Coast. Nurseries that had carried hundreds of cultivars whittled their inventories down to a handful. Besides, many gardeners thought the camellia out of place in the era’s new, more casual landscape style.
The scene began to shift again in the 1930s, as more gardeners came to realize that the camellia wasn’t a delicate prima donna but a trouble-free plant in the right conditions. In the 1940s camellias became the flower corsage of choice for the society set. At the end of World War II, the revival heated up even more. Savvy homeowners saw shrubs as ideal plants for a labor-saving landscape. Few other shrubs had the dense evergreen foliage or extended off-season flowering to equal the camellia (blooming from late fall to late spring). For that trait, they are often called “Queen of Winter Flowers.”
The diversity of flower and form combined with a beautiful shrub that is easy to grow made it a popular plant. Colors range from white to pink to red with just about every shade and combination of these colors available. Camellia flowers haven’t changed appreciably in past decades. They range from single and semi-double to forms resembling other flowers — peony, anemone, and rose — to the dense formal double. There are now more than 20,000 named cultivars.
Camellias prefer moist, well-drained, acid soils and moderately cold temperatures. They grow best in open shade. Most camellias bloom between September and March, which provides a unique burst of ornamental color when most plants in the garden are asleep.
Camellias thrive in the American West Coast, the South, and the Southeast (hardy to zone 7, and sometimes 6 with winter cover). Their winter blooms provide valuable nectar for pollinators during the cold months. So beloved have camellias become that several cities — and one state — have designated them as the city’s (or state’s ) flower. Sacramento, California; Slidell, Louisiana; Greenville, Alabama; Newburg, Oregon; and the state of Alabama all claim the flower as their own. For devotees, there are “camellia trails” in a ring around the coastal areas of the United States. The American Camellia Society maintains a list of these trails on its website (www.camellias-acs.com).
The genus Camellia has more than 250 species. Among the ornate varieties, the most widely grown are the Camellia sasanqua and C. japonica. Camellia sasanqua are the earliest bloomers. They have a more open habit and have a smaller, often more profuse bloom. Camellia japonicas, the standard bearer for the genus, have more showy flowers, more compact growth habit and larger, rounder leaves.
The genus was named Camellia by Linnaeus to honor the 17th century Jesuit missionary and botanist, George Josef Kamel. While on the island of Luzon in the Philippines, Kamel wrote an account of the plants he found there. Excerpts of this were published in England. From there Linnaeus Latinized Kamel’s name to “Camellia.”
In the long recorded history of camellias, their notable success in Europe and America is only a footnote. The plants can live up to 800 years and have been prized in Asia for centuries. They are important symbols in Korean culture, where they represent longevity and faithfulness. Since 1200 B.C. they have been used in Korean weddings. The flowers are highly respected in China and can be found in great abundance in the countryside. To the Chinese, camellias symbolize devotion between lovers and are seen as lucky symbols for the Chinese New Year and spring.
Not only beautiful, the tea plant has culinary and medicinal uses. The leaves of C. sinensis are used for tea. In India and Sri Lanka, C. sinensis is one of the leading crops, with plants growing 50 feet tall. In China, the seeds are pressed and the juice extracted to make tea oil (C. oleifera), used for seasoning and cooking. The Chinese use camellias to treat asthma, heart diseases, and bacterial infections.
Gardens along the U.S. coasts from east to west feature camellias new and old. In San Marino, California, the Huntington Botanical Gardens has one of America’s most comprehensive collections, with 60 species and 1,200 cultivars. In the deep South, The American Camellia Society has its headquarters at the Massee Lane Gardens in Fort Valley, Georgia. Here can be found over 1,000 cultivars in several camellia gardens.
With over 20,000 cultivars on display — from fall through spring — Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, South Carolina, has an impressive collection, one that has been growing for 300 years. Ancient Camellias (pre-1900) are a specialty there. The staff seeks out cultivars around the globe, making an effort to find and preserve threatened varieties. Norfolk Botanical Garden in Norfolk, Virginia, has been growing since the Depression and continues to expand. It has more than 1,700 camellia plants in the collection, with plants blooming from September (C. sasanqua) and until the end of May (C. japonica).
“Folks, young gardeners as well as more experienced ones, are becoming very interested in heirloom varieties of camellias,” notes Brie Arthur, propagator and grower at Camellia Forest Nursery in North Carolina. “Many of the old varieties are spectacular. And we know how well they perform because they have lived healthily for over a hundred years. Many are still available in the trade and more are being offered every year.”
Growers from Camellia Forest Nursery recently traveled to Magnolia Plantation with its collection of over 20,000 antique camellias. From these healthy old plants, Camellia Forest Nursery made a collection of 35 cultivars, now available to the public in its 2013 catalog as the Magnolia Plantation Ancient Collection. Visit their website at www.camforest.com.
Arthur agrees with my father — Camellias make great specimen plants. “That way you can have several varieties," she says. “Who would just want one?”
To achieve a sense of history, a burst of winter beauty, a touch with plants ancient and beneficial, try camellias. To help you in your quest, here are several stunning, older camellia cultivars that are still available:
A cultivar of C. japonica, ‘Alba Plena’ is one of the oldest types in the United States. Its medium-sized, double flowers are white with at least 100 petals. It blooms early in the season and can bloom for several months. Captain Connor of the East Indiaman carried it to Britain in 1792.
A light red C. japonica that blooms in mid-season, ‘Aunt Jetty’ has semi-double to loose peony- shaped blossoms. At the Alfred B. McLay Gardens State Park in Tallahassee, Florida, there is an ‘Aunt Jetty’ camellia which is almost 200 years old.
Developed in Rome, Italy, in 1863, this formal double camellia is intricately candy-striped. It has large flowers with interesting red picotee margins and red streaks on the blossoms.
‘Captain Martin’s Favorite’
Developed at Magnolia Plantation, this large pink-and-white-striped camellia comes with an amusing story. Apparently, the plant was near the shore where Captain Martin docked his boat. Not wanting the family to know he was picking the flowers, Captain Martin tucked them under his hat every time he passed. Unfortunately, the daughter of Magnolia Plantation came by; custom decreed that the captain tip his hat and as he did, the blossoms tumbled forth. Thus the mystery was solved, and the plant given a name.‘La Peppermint’
A beautiful and aptly named C. japonica, this camellia has 3-to 5-inch flowers that look like peppermint candy. A profuse bloomer, ‘La Peppermint’ makes a striking focal point to any garden. It was developed in 1935.
Another C. japonica, ‘Pink Perfection’ has been a feature of Southern gardens for over 150 years. It produces blush, double pink flowers all winter long. Originally from Japan, it is vigorous and long-lived.
A true heritage plant, this camellia originated about 1925 and was named for Professor Charles Sprague Sargent, then director of the Arnold Arboretum. It has heavily ruffled red flowers that bloom from late autumn to spring. This prolonged bloom period makes it an ideal cut flower. Commonly 12-to 15- feet high, the plant can reach 25 feet under the right conditions.
Brought to the United States from Europe in the 1840s, ‘Purple Dawn’ is a compact plant with large, double crimson blooms, often having a purple cast. It blooms from January to May. It is also called ‘Julia Drayton’ and ‘Mathotiana’ and is one of the all-time favorites among the group.
Susan Davis Price is a freelance garden writer and lecturer. Her books include Growing Home, Stories of Ethnic Gardening; Minnesota Gardens, an Illustrated History; and Northern Treasure. Susan’s own cottage garden is loved but not always tidy.