My fascination with camellias is not new, it dates back to my teenage years. We didn’t have camellias growing in gardens, of course, not with the climate like that. They were then completely exotic, faraway beauties and in those pre-historic (aka pre-google) times I didn’t even know what they looked like. But the allure of the risqué, the evocation of prohibited passions was irresistible, as I discovered, at a tender age of 12, the story of that Parisian courtesan, Marguerite Gaultier. The idea of those white or red camellias on the ledge of her theatre box, the promise of seeing her lover “when this flower fades”, her grave covered in camellias… I was deeply affected by the sad tale, even though at that time I would have been unable to appreciate the full spectrum of passions that make up La Dame aux Camelias by Alexandre Dumas fils. I did later, when I saw Verdi’s La Traviata in Covent Garden, several times during my London years. By then, however, the fascination with the flowers themselves had mostly faded. I didn’t even recognise the plant growing in the garden of our former rental flat until it burst into roses-like red flowers around Valentine’s day.
And then last year, a camellia arrived in our own garden, almost out of necessity. I had moved a young Japanese acer to a better suited spot, to use the flower bed in front of our window as just that – a flower bed, a usual mix of perennials and annuals for various seasons. Having looked at the new arrangement that evening, my husband expressed an opinion on the subject, a rare occurrence back then: “Don’t you think this bed is now too flat and completely lacks a vertical interest?” I puffed and huffed (a “vertical interest”! really! since when this landscaping slang?!) but of course I saw that he was right. So, I was in urgent need to find something evergreen, not too high, not too bushy, so that it did not screen the view to the garden from our sitting area, something cheerful for the eye to rest on during the bleak months. Something to go with my hellebores and cyclamens. Something that would like the acidic soil and part-shade and would be hardy enough to zone 6, to boot! I launched a quest and thus discovered the fascinating world of camellias. We now have a beautiful camellia “Winter Peony” growing in that spot for “vertical interest”, and my own interest in this plant looks here to stay.
In Japan, the camellia flower is called “tsubaki”, a tree with shining leaves. It is a symbol of the divine, gracing temple gardens and sacred ceremonies. In Shinto religion, when gods visited Earth, they made camellia flowers their home. Why wouldn’t they!
My Winter Peony is a hybrid descending from camellia sasanqua, while most ornamental camellias are actually camellia japonica. There are over 10,000 cultivars of japonicas, while only a few hundred of sasanquas. The latter are much gentler creatures, with a slender growth habit and smaller, softer leaves, lustrous and not so leathery. The flowers are also smaller and not quite so profuse and the petals are dropped elegantly, one by one. “Sazanka” – a plum-flowered tea…
It amuses me to think how camellia japonica has “stolen” its way to our continent. It arrived aboard an East India Company’s vessel (which exotic plant did not?) in the late 17th century. But it was camellia sinensis, the tea plant, that was meant to be on that boat. A mistake had apparently been made and a very ornamental camellia japonica found its way into hothouses of the 18th century European wealthy. Sasanqua arrived later, brought to Europe, also by Dutch traders, in 1869. They were all tender and thus mostly grown in orangeries or in very mild pockets of England and the US. Hardy varieties date back only to the 20th century. My Winter Peony is an Ackerman hybrid, named after an American botanist who created new resilient varieties, after severe frosts devastated a famous camellia collection of the National Arboretum of Northeast Washington in 1960s.
Sasanquas are autumn/early winter flowering variety, and just before Christmas our camellia burst into bloom for the first time. It is small and still “finding its feet” but the promise is there! It is on its way to becoming the Queen of my “winter garden”. (Well, it is, perhaps, too grand a name for a small corner of winter-flowering plants by our sitting room window but with the white hellebores and pink cyclamens as ladies-in-waiting to the camellia, our winter court(yard) looks lovely and complete.) It’s interesting that, for many people, camellia is firmly a harbinger of spring. I can’t help but think of it as the “Christmas rose”, although I know that title officially belongs to the hellebores.
I went for the lilacky-pink colour when I was choosing my camellia, not yet ready to overcome association with those flowers on the opera box ledge. But I was not to escape them! Two weeks ago, I received, quite unexpectedly, from a guy who was trimming our cherry tree, a “rescue” camellia. It is a late winter flowering japonica. It is red. And it is called “Black Lace”, the redolence now inescapable. Of course, like with anything “rescue” in our family (including a pair of parakeets), it is here to stay. I might keep the white-pink-lilac colour scheme of the “winter garden” intact and plant it in the front garden instead – after all, red camellias, planted by the house entrance, are supposed to bring wealth! Or I may move it to the allotment, where, true to its Asian heritage, it will be in a good company with the rhododendron, bamboo, azaleas, and ferns.
The Winter Peony has finished blooming now. The Black Lace is full of thick buds. And my winter of camellias was made complete by a live relay, last night, of La Traviata from the Opera House in Covent Garden. Placido Domingo as Alfredo’s father was great, but Ermonella Jaho as the Lady of the Camellias was just stunning, incredibly moving. I had seen a number of performers in this role (including superstars like Anna Netrebko and Renee Fleming), but I had never seen anyone inhabit the role quite like that. The passions are devastating and haunting, and the performance will no doubt haunt me for days now as I wait for the Black Lace to burst into flower.