Colorful Jewels

Native to Asia, camellias have a rich history from Europe to the Antebellum South.

| Summer 2013

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.

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