Camellia japonica L.

Common names

Common Camellia

Article sources

Bean

An evergreen shrub or small tree 30 to 40 ft high, of much-branched habit. Leaves deep glossy green, ovate or oval, 3 to 4 in. long, tapering to a short point, shallow toothed, quite glabrous, specked with black or brown dots on the lower surface, and of firm, leathery texture. Flowers red, solitary at the end of the branchlets, stalkless, 212 to 4 in. across; petals normally five, but usually more in cultivated plants. Stamens numerous, united for a half to two-thirds of their length into a fleshy cup. Seeds 34 to 1 in. long, half as wide; often flattened on several sides through compression.

Few exotic shrubs have filled a more important place in our greenhouses than the common camellia has in its time, but its merits as a hardy plant were not fully appreciated until this century. Whilst it is not adapted for exposed, windy positions, it is perfectly hardy near London in places where there is moderate shelter from north and east. At Kew it has withstood 31 degrees of frost without suffering in the least. It is, indeed, one of the most satisfactory of hardy evergreens, there being no other except, perhaps, the laurels with quite the same lustrous black-green hue. This camellia is a native of Japan, the Korean Archipelago, and the Liu Kiu Islands. It is not found wild in China but has long been cultivated there as a garden plant. The oil expressed from the seeds is used by the Japanese women for dressing the hair.

The species first became known in Europe about the beginning of the eighteenth century, and many fine varieties were imported from China; in the half-century or so after the end of the Napoleonic wars many hundreds more were raised in Europe, first in England and later on the continent. As is generally known, these have flowers pure white, of various shades of red, deep scarlet, striped, and of various degrees of 'doubleness'. About the middle of the nineteenth century the camellia had become perhaps the most popular of greenhouse flowers; its prim stiffness and solidity was not an inappropriate floral emblem of that period. But as the nineteenth century neared its close the popularity of the camellia declined. Its renaissance, now as an outdoor shrub, began in the period between the two world wars. The very hard winter of 1928-9 was, perhaps, the turning point, for it proved that the garden varieties of the common camellia are not only hardy, but among the hardiest of all evergreens. 'Their chief defect is the susceptibility of the flowers to injury by spring frost. A few degrees below freezing-point will discolour the petals so much that the blossom is robbed of all beauty. This undoubtedly detracts from the value of the Camellia in the open air. The best place of all for it is, no doubt, in thin woodland, where the trees are not so close together that their roots monopolise the ground entirely, yet whose branches are capable of providing shade and a certain amount of shelter. A canopy of even leafless branches will often mitigate the effect of short snaps of late frost and the evil effects of thawing by bright, early morning sunshine.

'For ordinary gardens, places that are sheltered on the east by either walls, trees or tall shrubs should, if possible, be chosen for Camellias. There at any rate they are protected from early morning sunshine. In spite of their capability of withstanding great cold they are not adapted for bleak, open, wind-swept sites. If no other place is available for them, they should be treated as wall plants, and, if given a western or north-western exposure, the chances of the flowers developing their full beauty are all the more favourable.

In the open air Camellia japonica flowers from early to late spring and the best forms for out-of-doors are the semi-double and single red-flowered ones, which appear to open better than the very double ones, and to suffer less from late spring frosts. But any variety that has become too large for the greenhouse should be tried in the open air, for the sake of its foliage, if its flowers fail. It should be remembered that plants turned out of pots or tubs in which the roots have become matted require careful watering until the roots have spread into the surrounding ground. The single-flowered varieties may be propagated by cuttings made from firm wood about the end of June and placed in heat. It is best to treat them at first as cool greenhouse plants, as they grow more quickly. The fine double varieties are usually grafted on the cuttings of the single ones. For further information on the propagation of camellias the reader is referred to the article by P. Wiseman in The Rhododendron and Camellia Year Book for 1964, and by F. P. Knight, op. cit., 1956.

It would be impossible in a general work such as this to do even the scantiest justice to the numerous garden varieties of C. japonica now available in commerce. For the British gardener the best guide is the review by Charles Puddle and the late Francis Hanger published in The Rhododendron and Camellia Year Book for 1960 and 1961.

subsp. rusticana (Honda) Kitamura C. rusticana Honda Snow Camellia. – This subspecies grows in the mountains of the north-western part of the main island of Japan (Honshu) – a region of long and snowy but not unduly harsh winters. Its southern limit is believed to lie around 30° N., while typical C. japonica is mostly found south of that line and never far above sea-level. In their more extreme forms the two races overlap, but generally subsp. rusticana can be distinguished by the following characters: petioles usually downy when young; involucre shorter (rarely as long as 45 in., which is the lower limit in C. japonica); petals widely spread and adnate to the filaments of the outer stamens for only 15 to 25 in. approximately (25 to 35 in. in C. japonica); filaments of stamens yellow, united only near their base (white or cream and high united into a tube in C. japonica). For further information see The Rhododendron and Camellia Year Book, 1956, pp. 84-9, and 1959, pp. 115-17.

C. hongkongensis Seem. – This species is definitely a greenhouse plant in this country. It is distinguished from C. japonica by its oblong, widely and minutely toothed leaves, persistent flower-bud scales, and hairy ovary. Indigenous in Hong Kong.


Footnotes

Reprinted from an article by W. J. Bean in The New Flora and Sylva, Vol. 2, No. 2 (1930), by kind permission of Mr. E. H. H. Cox.


From the Supplement (Vol. V)

It was stated in the first paragraph on page 481 that C. japonica does not occur wild in China. However, in his survey of the genus Chang cites some specimens said to be from wild plants, collected in four localities of central and western China. What is certain is that C. japonica does have close relatives in China, all red-flowered, of which the most notable is C. chekiangoleosa Hu (1965), a native of central China, for which see Rhod. Cam. Year Book No. 21 (1967), pp. 55-6 and Chang and Bartholomew, pp. 104-5. It has been suggested that this species, rather than C. japonica, may be the ancestor of some Chinese cultivars hitherto placed under the latter.

A large number of Japonica cultivars are available in commerce. Not all are suitable for growing outdoors in the average garden, though not for any want of hardiness. The trouble lies in the fact that the Japonicas, although tolerant of low winter temperatures, need abundant warmth during the growing season if they are to set flower-buds and may fail to do so in our average summer, and also that the flowers are too easily spoiled by rain or frost (this is less true of the reds than it is of the paler-coloured sorts). The following selection is by no means comprehensive but includes the best known of those that are suitable for growing outdoors in southern England. The selection is based on the list of cultivars recommended early in the 1980s for the Award of Garden Merit, with the addition of some that perform reliably in the Savill and Valley Gardens, Windsor Great Park, suggested by Mr John Bond, the Keeper.

'Adolphe Audusson'. – Flowers rich red (Geranium Lake), semi-double, 4 to 412 in. wide, a few of the stamens converted into petalodes. A reliable camellia with shapely flowers, vigorous and free-flowering.

'Alba Simplex'. – Flowers single, white, about 312 in. wide, opening flat. Handsome foliage, the leaves being up to almost 5 in. long. An old cultivar, still one of the most reliable whites. Upright habit. 'Devonia' is similar and also good, differing in its more cup-shaped flowers and shorter leaves; raised by Messrs Robert Veitch of Exeter, shortly before 1900.

'Apollo'. – Flowers semi-double, about 4 in. wide, red (near RHS Colour Chart 46C), with a prominent boss of stamens. Leaves elliptic with a twisted tip, glossy dark green. An excellent camellia for the open ground, of better habit than 'Adolphe Audusson'. A.M. May 1, 1956.

'Arejishi' ('Arajishi'). – Flowers paeony-form, 314 in. wide, with some stamens showing among the petalodes, a strikingly rich red. Leaves elliptic, long-acuminate, deeply serrated. It starts to flower in March.

'Contessa Lavinia Maggi'. – A formal double, with flowers about 312 in. wide, variegated pink and carmine on a white ground. Some branches produce unvariegated flowers. An old Italian cultivar that received a First Class Certificate as long ago as 1862. Considered to be the best variegated japonica for outdoors.

'Coquetii'. – Flowers double but usually showing some stamens, about 4 in. wide, soft red (Delft Rose). Upright, bushy habit. A.M. 1956.

'Donckelarii'. – Flowers semi-double, soft red (Turkey Red), marbled with white to a varying degree. It is very free-flowering out of doors but unfortunately now rather weak in constitution owing to virus infection. Introduced by Siebold before 1834 and named after the Director of the Ghent Botanic Garden, whose name was in fact Doncklear.

'Elegans'. – Flowers rosy pink, anaemone-centred, about 4 in. wide. A very old and reliable sort, vigorous and of spreading habit. 'C. M. Wilson' with lighter pink flowers, is one of the many sports to which it has given rise.

'Gloire de Nantes'. – Flowers carmine rose, semi-double, with many petalodes grading into petals. It is one of the most reliable of the Japonicas for outdoor use, its flowers being moderately frost-resistant and borne over a long period, some opening in winter.

'Jupiter'. – Flowers single, carmine rose, about 312 in. wide. Compact, upright habit. It is free-flowering in the open and sets seed.

'Konron-Koku'. – Flowers blackish red, between semi-double and formal double, about 312 in. wide. A reliable shrub for the open ground. It was originally distributed in this country as 'Kouron-jura', under which name it received an Award of Merit in 1960.

'Lady Clare ('Akashi-gata'). – Flowers semi-double, deep pink (Neyron Rose), 412 to 5 in. wide. Leaves broad, with long-acuminate tips. Vigorous, of low, spreading habit.

'Lady Vansittart'. – Flowers semi-double, about 3 in. wide, white flushed and blotched with pink. Leaves elliptic, long-acuminate, very glossy. Compact, upright habit. A good plant for small gardens. There are several sports of this of which perhaps the best is 'Yours Truly', raised in the USA, which has pale pink flowers, streaked with carmine, white at the edge.

'Mathotiana Alba'. – A formal double, the flowers white, about 5 in. wide. Open habit. There are several sports from this, of which the best known are 'Mathotiana Rosea' with pink flowers and, in a lighter shade of pink, 'Souvenir de Bahuaud-litou'. But all these are on the borderline, as the flowers are easily spoiled by inclement weather.

'Rubescens Major'. – Flowers double, shapely, but the petals and petalodes not formally imbricated, pale carmine, about 4 in. wide. Compact and bushy. One of the most reliable Japonicas for the open ground. A.M. 1959. Sometimes sold, incorrectly, as 'Paolina Guichardini'.

'Tricolor'. – Flowers semi-double, about 312 in. wide, white with pink stripes but varying greatly in the amount of variegation. Leaves lanceolate, long-acuminate, deeply serrated. Very reliable and free-flowering, of spreading, compact habit. Of its many sports 'Lady de Saumarez', with self-coloured, carmine-pink flowers, is the best and most stable.

Genus

Camellia

Other species in the genus