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26 Jul 2019

Celebrating the camellia

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.

camellia garden

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.

Camellia 2000 year old collected by Bob Cherry Blue Mountains Botanic Garden Mount Tomah_Credit Greg Bourke.jpg
Camellia japonica 'Bokuhan' 

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.

Royal Botanic Garden Sydney Camellia japonica cv Mrs D W Davis Descanso Theaceae_credit Greg Bourke.jpg
Camellia japonica  'Mrs D W Davis Descanso'

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.

The Camellia Garden will include critically endangered species, those of cultural significance, the latest new cultivars and tea plants.
Greg Bourke, Curator of the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden Mount Tomah

A new garden

To celebrate the camellia and other members of the family Theaceae, we are creating a garden for these plants  at the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden Mount Tomah. Working with landscape genius Yvonne Vale and horticultural guru Jimmy Turner, we have designed a display garden that will celebrate the camellia in a way that is unequalled in Australia.

More than 7,000 m2 of ornamental garden will display the significant plants from the critically endangered species, along with those of cultural significance from Asia and Australia, the latest in breeding excellence and, of course, tea plants.

The concept design takes advantage of some existing plantings and opens up a new area of the Garden. There‘s still much to do to bring it to life including funding for the Camellia Garden. However, we have had great support from a number of people and are working with world renowened camellia expert Dr Stephen Utick from the Camellia Ark project, who will help bring really special plants into the collection.

Royal Botanic Garden Sydney Camellia japonica cv Dona Herzilia De Friet Theaceae_credit Greg Bourke.jpg
Camellia japonica 'Edith Linton' 

Take a look around

Although the Camellia Garden is still being planned, there is still plenty to see and do at the Garden including self-guided walks and free tours led by our volunteers.

If you are looking for an exclusive and in-depth tour of the Garden, the Seasonal Curator Tour is led by the horticulture team followed by lunch at The Potager.

If it's a short visit or an overnight stay, I hope you enjoy your next visit to the Garden.

Camellia Virginia Franco Rosea_credit Greg Bourke .jpg
Camellia japonica 'Virginia Franco Rosea' 

As seen in the Winter 2019 of the Foundation & Friends of the Botanic Gardens magazine.

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