During the winter months in Charleston, the tourist season slows down a bit, but those visitors who do come during January are in for a treat. The camellias start to bloom all over the city! I can’t tell you how many first-time visitors who encounter these exquisite floral gems during one of my walking tours have to stop and take about a dozen photos as they cannot believe they’re real. I still marvel at the delicate petals in all their glory.
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.
The camellia was introduced to the Lowcountry by André Michaux—the royal botanist for King Louis XVI of France who established an experimental botanical garden near today’s Charleston International Airport. In 1786, Michaux is said to have presented the Middleton family with camellia plants for the gardens at their Ashley River plantation, and now, Middleton Place has 4,000 of the shrubs, including one of Michaux’s originals, the‘Reine des Fleurs‘ (“Queen of Flowers”).
If you’re planning to visit Charleston in the winter, why not book a walking tour at Eclectic Tours of Charleston. I can show you some of the most lush camellia bushes in town.