This is the third of a new series of blogs by John Wyer, which discuss the A to Z of garden design and horticulture. This time, C is for Camellia…
Camellias occupy an interesting position in our horticultural history and indeed in wider society and culture. Most of us know Camellia as Camellia japonica, an evergreen shrub which flowers in early spring. The earliest of the spring flowering Camellias come out in February, but some varieties flower in Autumn (C. sasanqua, for example). Although they had been cultivated in the far east for centuries, they weren’t introduced into England until 1739 and reached the height of fashion in the early Victorian era.
They were made famous by Verdi’s fantastically romantic opera ‘La Traviata’: this was my introduction to opera in my late twenties – I love it to this day. These days Camellias have a rather more staid reputation than Verdi’s ‘Lady of the Camellias’, but are still very useful glossy-leaved shrubs for early season brightening.
Perhaps a less well-known fact is that a ‘cousin’ of the garden variety is Camellia sinensis, better known as tea. In fact, the introduction of decorative Camellias went hand-in-hand with that of the tea species in the C18th – and many of the early garden varieties were introduced by employees of the East India Company. Tea was first widely cultivated in the far east, particularly Japan and China. The race to get the first (and most profitable) crops of tea back from China to the UK was made famous by the Cutty Sark.
Initially, tea was a luxurious drink in the UK and was often drunk with sugar – another high-status 18th century foodstuff. But the high cost of Chinese tea led to the British desire to cultivate tea elsewhere in the empire – particularly the Indian sub-continent, where there was a suitable climate and a plentiful supply of ‘labour’. By 1840, the British were successful in this and as a result, by the 1870s tea was affordable to everybody. So Camellia represents a clear link between horticulture, imperialism and British cultural identity. A love of gardening and tea – what could be more British?