February and March is the time when camellias start to bring colour and glamour to the spring garden. Native to southern and eastern Asia, the camellia was grown as an ornamental plant in China and Japan for centuries before it was collected and introduced to England in the 1730s. Robert James Petre (1713 – 42) is said to have raised the first camellia to flower in his hothouses at Thorndon Hall, Essex.
In the late 18th and early 19th century cultivation in glasshouses was the typical method of growing these plants. The conservatory at Chiswick House houses a camellia collection grown in this way. As camellias were rare and expensive plants, no one wanted to take any risks with their hardiness by planting them outside. As William Curtis observes in the second volume of his Botanical Magazine published in 1788,
With us, the Camellia is generally treated as a stove plant, and propagated by layers; it is sometimes placed in the greenhouse; but it appears to us to be one of the properest plants imaginable for the conservatory. At some future time it may, perhaps, not be uncommon to treat it as a Lauristinus or Magnolia: the high price at which it has hitherto been sold may have prevented its being hazarded in this way.
As well as correctly predicting that the camellia was probably hardier than it might have looked, Curtis also discusses the way that camellias often drop their flowers in their entirety before they are fully finished and records the practice of collecting these blooms and re-attaching them to the plants.
The blossoms are of a firm texture, but apt to fall off long before they have lost their brilliancy; it therefore is a practice with some to stick such deciduous blossoms on some fresh bud, where they continue to look well for a considerable time.
Seems strange to us now, but maybe not the worst February garden job for the 18th century gardener?
The similarity of the shape of the camellia flower to that of the rose is noted by Curtis in his list of synonyms for the plant which is listed as Rosa chinensis.
William Curtis (1746 – 1799) started his career as an apothecary, but his interest in botany and natural history soon caused him to change direction and focus on botany and horticulture full time. He was the director of the Chelsea Physic garden from 1771 – 77 and then established his own botanic garden in Lambeth in 1779. He published Flora Londinensis in six volumes between 1777 – 1798. Illustrated in colour, the book records all the wild plant life then growing in the environs of London.
Flora Londinensis was not a commercial success, but provided a model for Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, which Curtis launched in 1787. Using broadly the same format as his book, the magazine features a full page colour illustration of an exotic plant with a page of botanical information written in a scientific but accessible style that a non-specialist audience could understand. The magazine was very popular, the public showing greater appetite for curious and rare specimens than the wildflowers and weeds on their doorsteps. The magazine is also a fascinating record of when plants were introduced to England and which nurseries, gardens or individuals were cultivating them. The magazine is still published today by Kew Gardens.
A long line of distinguished botanical artists have supplied illustrations to the magazine. Sydenham Edwards and James Sowerby were early contributors, and from the mid 1820s Walter Hood Fitch was the principal artist for some forty years.
There is still a belief today that camellias can be rather tender and tricky to cultivate, when in fact these plants are pretty tough garden characters. In the City of London where I garden the tall buildings generate strong localised gales which can shred broad leaved plants. The camellias, however, take this battering in their stride with their dark waxy leaves impervious to dessicating winds. Passers by always admire the largest camellia in the garden (possibly Camellia japonica ‘Governor Mouton’) with its red and white double flowers which begin in late January.
Although still popular with the public, camellias don’t seem to be favoured by today’s garden designers. I wonder if this is because the dark green foliage creates a rather formal effect together with the waxy flowers which don’t fit easily into the current fashion for naturalistic looking planting schemes? It’s a shame as they do have advantages. As evergreen shrubs they provide all year round structure and do well in shade, making them especially useful in town gardens shadowed by neighbouring buildings and trees. They also grow well in containers. Some of the white, single flowered varieties could be integrated into a naturalistic planting scheme, such as Camellia rosthorniana ‘Elina’ which has a pink tinge to the flowers, like apple blossom.
On the minus side, the red and pink flowered varieties can be problematic in the spring garden, as they clash with yellow flowers like daffodils. Also, not all camellia varieties shed their flowers, so to keep the plants looking fresh, they need to be dead headed regularly.
A world without camellias would be a sad place, however, as it would mean life without tea, that essential drink derived from the leaves of Camellia sinensis. An entry in the magazine for 1832 shows the tea plant accompanied by a discussion about tea production in China and tea consumption around the world.
I particularly like the details about the growers of camellias attached to the illustrations in the Magazine – a few samples appear below:
Camellia Show at Chiswick House 22nd February – 25th March 2018
(NB. images from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine can be found on the Biodiversity Heritage Library’s Flickr Collection – link below)