History of Camellias

History of Camellias

History of Camellias

Today there are recognized over 200 different species of Camellia - all native to the Orient. The Camellia is known in Japan as Tsubaki. For many centuries, before the westernization of Japan, the native tsubaki or "tree with shining leaves" held a special place in Japanese thought. It was a belief of the Shinto religion that the gods in spirit form made the flowers of the tsubaki their home when on an earthly visit. Plantings of the tsubaki were an essential feature of temple gardens, graveyards, and other areas associated with the religious life of the community. Today, many old varieties of camellia may be found in the old temple compounds of Japan. Camellias are not as popular as cut flowers in Japan because they are associated with "beheading". The camellia blossom often falls off the plant in its entirety, symbolic of a man's head being cut off.

The total number of named camellia varieties is believed to be as high as 20,000, although this figure is constantly increasing. The International Camellia Society published the International Camellia Register, an accumulation of over thirty years of research. This multi- volume book contains all but the latest camellia varieties from all countries of the world.

The most popular camellia throughout the world is often not even recognized as a member of this family. This plant is Camellia sinensis, better known as the tea plant. The word tea comes from the Chinese Amoy dialect for the word t'e. Tea is better known in China and Japan as ch'a from the Cantonese dialect. Tea first became popular in China during the reign of the Emperor Nung around 1700 B.C. During the period of trade, the East India Company brought tea from China to Europe where it became very popular. It may have first arrived in London in 1650, where it was known as Tay or Tee.

Tea quickly became a part of life and was known as "the cup that cheers but does not inebriate". After tea became so universally popular, the government decided to place a tax on it which led to the Boston Tea Party and later to the American Revolution. So you might say that a camellia was the origin of the Revolution which created the United States as a separate country from Great Britain.

It is generally agreed that the Camellia japonica arrived in London aboard a boat of the East India Company. Tea was brought to Europe aboard boats of the East India Company from China. Officials tried to bring tea plants to England for propagation, but either by mistake or on purpose, plants of Camellia japonica were sent by the Chinese instead. The first japonica was growing in England some time before 1739 in the greenhouse of Lord Petre. Since that time, this has become the most popular of the ornamental camellias, with thousands of varieties having been named.

The Camellia was named by Linnaeus in honor of a Jesuit priest serving in the Philippines - Joseph Kamel. He probably never saw any plants, but this is not really known. Of the approximately 200 species of camellia known today, only a few are grown in the United States for their ornamental value.

Camellia japonica

By far the most important ornamental camellia, believed to be native to Japan - hence the name. Variable plant from small shrub to small tree - up to 30 or more feet tall. In the wild, it grows as an understory plant on hillsides. Flowers vary in size and color, but generally are single with five to six petals, and are red. However white and pink are known. They are winter blooming, have beautiful shiny evergreen leaves, and an interesting brown trunk. Today, they have been hybridized more than any other camellia, and flowers are available in all sizes, colors, and forms.

Camellia sasanqua

These are the fall blooming camellias. They are native to southern Japan. Native plants are small trees up to 16 feet tall. Flowers are generally white with few petals and lightly fragrant. The leaves are generally smaller than japonicas and flowers shatter readily, making them unsuitable for cut flowers. They bloom from September through December, and are excellent landscape plants. They will grow in either sun or shade and may not be quite as cold hardy as the japonicas.

Camellia vernalis

Probably not a species, but a hybrid between japonica and sasanqua. Size and shape are intermediate between the two species. There are very few varieties known. The cross is difficult to make.

Camellia reticulata

This species was represented by one plant in England in the 1800's. However, this did not hybridize with other camellias, and no other reticulatas were known in the western world, until the 1940's, when they were brought out of the southern part of China. They have the largest of all camellia flowers and have resulted in exquisite crosses with japonicas.

Camellia sinensis

The common tea plant. Grows well. However, the blooms are not outstanding as an ornamental. Forms many seed pods.

Camellia oleifera

Known as the oil camellia, it was used for this purpose for years in the Orient, and has been used as a parent of hardy ornamental camellia hybrids in the USA since at least the late 1970s.

Camellia chrysantha or nitidissima

Best known of the yellow camellias. Came out of China around 1980. Has been used successfully in the hybridizing program for yellow camellias. Not cold hardy.

Camellia hybrids

Any plant that results from the crossing of more than one species of camellia. Many are available, and they add much to the camellia world in the way of color, fragrance, and hardiness.


Learn more about the history of Camellias from the links below.

The Culture of Camellias: An exhibition chiefly from the Phelps Memorial Collection of Garden Books, University of South Carolina.

  • Among the University of South Carolina's hidden treasures is one of the major collections in the United States of rare illustrated books about the camellia, its history, cultivation, and early varieties.

  • The collection was formed by Mrs. Sheffield Phelps (Claudia Lea) of Aiken. Mrs. Phelps was the first president of the Garden Club of South Carolina (1930-33), and her daughter Miss Claudia Lea Phelps succeeded her as the Club's third president (1936-38).

  • This exhibition tells the story of how camellias were brought from the Far East in the early 1700s to Europe, and then to America, how they were identified and named, and how the major varieties were developed by 19th-century specialist growers.

  • The exhibit includes some of the very earliest published depictions of the camellia, from as far back as 1702, as well as gorgeous handcolored copperplate engravings from the heyday of camellia books in the early and mid 19th century.

Historic Marker for Georgia's first public camellia show.
(Macon, Georgia on Third Street between Cherry and Mulberry Street.)