I can‘t think of anyone I‘ve met who doesn’t have a connection to the camellia. Whether it’s a flower in a garden, your favourite morning brew or your experience of the Orient, we all have some connection to this special plant. For me, it’s actually all three!
I grew up with two camellia trees growing outside my kitchen window. Their beautiful, symmetrical pink and white flowers marked the end of winter, although I also remember when the flowers were old and brown, and they dropped all over our car and were very slippery under foot.
A precious plant
Green tea became a favourite for me when I was on an expedition in the mountains of Borneo. I’ll never forget the smiling faces of the local Malay people hand-picking tea leaves on the foothills of the great Mount Kinabalu.
For many westerners, tea is their main connection with camellias, as most black, green and white teas come from Camellia sinensis. In the East, however, the connections to this genus go far beyond a beverage made from boiled leaves.
In China and Japan, camellia has been cultivated for centuries, and it is one of the most significant cultural symbols in these countries. It is grown for use as an ornamental plant, various types of tea (from leaves or stems), oils (pressed from seeds) and a number of other products. It is an essential plant, not just culturally, but also for survival.
A threatened species
The genus Camellia belongs to the family Theaceae, which contains about nine genera. Camellia is the largest
of these, comprising approximately 160 species. Of these, only 28.6 per cent are not threatened in the wild, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Camellia spp. is a group of plants that is of great conservation significance, and one that has taken my interest in recent years for this very reason.
A popular genus
There are now more than 30,000 camellia cultivars, including many that have been developed throughout Asia, and the majority have been bred from C. japonica and C. sasanqua. These cultivars range in size and colour, with flowering times extending from March through September, making them the perfect plant for cool-climate gardens.
Camellias have had a long-standing relationship with our Botanic Gardens, dating back to the 1800s. At the Blue
Mountains Botanic Garden Mount Tomah, camellias were first planted during the Brunet era, long before the site was transformed into a botanic garden, and they are also planted at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney.
Over the years, many species and cultivars have been added to the Living Collection at both Gardens, and now more than 1,400 accessions exist across the Mount Tomah and Sydney estates.