Japanese camellia (Camellia japonica), a flowering evergreen shrub, may also be grown as a small tree. It rises in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 7 to 9 and is indigenous to China, Korea and Japan. Camellias have been developed as both outdoor and conservatory plants. A careful look at the leaves reveals Japanese camellia is a member of the Theaceae, or tea family, closely related to Chinese camellia (Camellia sinensis) that the plant that supplies leaves used to make tea.
The great Swedish botanist Linnaeus, named the camellia for Georg Joseph Kamel, a Jesuit botanist, who understood nothing of the plant, however made significant collecting trips to the Philippines in the 1600s. The very first camellia to arrive in England in 1705 died in a nobleman’s overheated hothouse. Fortunately, cuttings had been taken from the plant and have been successfully grown on. Camellias arrived in the U.S. in the late 18th century, brought by French royal botanist Andre Michaux, who gave a few to Henry Middleton, owner of a South Carolina plantation. More than 200 years later, one of those original camellias is still booming.
Japanese camellias take many forms, a number of them uncommon. Among the most distinctive is that the novelty variety “Unryu Tsubaki,” which features stems that turn in a 45-degree angle at each leaf node, causing a mass of twisted, contorted branches. In addition, it has a virtually columnar shape, which is not typical for camellias. Another unusual camellia is “Kingyo Tsubaki,” also known as the fishtail camellia, which is distinguished by leaves with broken or dissected ends that curl upward and resemble fish tails.
The Japanese camellia is strongly symbolic in many cultures and particular plants are highly prized. The white-flowered camellia “Daijohkan” long prospered in the backyard of an imperial castle in Nagoya, Japan. Propagation of “Daijohkan” was officially illegal until 1964 due to its exalted status for a palace plant. The language of flowersthat thrived in Victorian times, assigned emotional messages or meanings to several flowers. White camellias stood for true excellence and faithfulness. Red blossoms were symbols of attractiveness. Unlike other floral emblems of attractiveness, the Japanese camellia doesn’t have any fragrance.
Victorians constructed special camellia houses because of their shrubs. 1 home, constructed at the Chatsworth estate in Derbyshire, England, in 1840, still stands. Some of its original plants continue to flower every spring. In 1848, American camellia collector, Noel Becar, constructed a 100-foot-long camellia home in Brooklyn, New York. Another collector, William Robertson Coe, of Oyster Bay, Long Island, whose company insured the Titanic, constructed a camellia home during World War I. It still stands. The original shipment of over a hundred camellias for Coe’s estate was torpedoed by a German submarine.