Named after Georg Josef Kamel (or Camellus), a Moravian (Czech) Jesuit priest and botanist, who worked in the Far East.
Uses. They have been grown for thousands of years, not only for the flowers but also especially for their leaves and seeds. After all, tea is produced from the young shoots and leaves of a species of Camellia, C. sinensis , (which means Chinese Camellia) and so this has become a very widely grown and important crop plant especially in India, Sri Lanka and Kenya.
The seeds of C. sasanqua have long been used to produce the luxurious tea oil, which is used to add a subtly fragrant flavour to Oriental cooking.
Species grow wild in China and Japan and The great majority of species come from China, and the Chinese botanists are busy trying to sort out the similar but separate species. They are all evergreen, forming large shrubs or small trees with time, growing in the partial shade of mountain forests.
They have single, relatively small flowers and most are spring-flowering whites or pinks with a centre full of yellow stamens. Some are scented.
Japonicas are the commonest and most widely grown. Despite its name, the wild type also grows in China and Korea and has been a garden plant there for thousands of years, as can be seen from the old paintings.
As a result, a very wide range of different shapes and colours had been bred and have now been distributed all over the world. By 1739, the first plants to reach England were flowering; for a long time they were only grown in hot greenhouses and it only gradually became clear how hardy they are. There are now perhaps 30,000 different named varieties.
Higos are a distinctive race of Japonica with a splayed-out flare of stamens in a single flower. From the Japanese island of Kyushu, they were an integral part of the Samurai
Sasanqua are the autumn-flowering types and have only recently become more widely known, though the Japanese had garden varieties as long ago as the 14th century. There may be more than one species in their parentage, and some are classified as varieties of C. hiemalis or C. vernalis as well as C. sasanqua. Many are at their best in November, when there is so little else to enjoy in the garden. Sweetly scented, they are typically fairly small single flowers with splayed-out golden stamens.
Retics or Reticulata hybrids hybrids are descended from the Chinese C. reticulata, from Yunnan, where they have long been bred and appreciated, possibly since the 7th century and they were greatly appreciated in the Ming dynasty.
They have enormous flowers in rich pinks and reds, and grow on upright, vigorous bushes with large, pointed leaves. They have been collected from temple and courtyard gardens around Kunming and many new varieties bred from them, especially in California and Australia.
Unfortunately, they are a little tender and do not root easily from cuttings, so are rather rare in the UK. Hybrids from them, especially crossed with C. japonica, are proving tough and reliable and deserve to be much more widely grown as they have some of the most spectacular flowers of any plant. Their upright habit makes them ideal for walls and they should be favourites in town gardens, especially against terraced houses.
Williamsii hybrids have become enormously popular, thanks to their vigour and quantity of flower, as well as their reputation for dropping their dead flowers (only really reliable with the single ones).
They get their name from J.C.Williams who first crossed C. japonica with the Chinese C. saluenensis, in his garden at Caerhays Castle in Cornwall - one of the gardening Meccas.
Many more have since been raised elsewhere, but none can rival the deserved popularity of C. Donation, raised at Borde Hill Garden in Sussex. We are fortunate indeed to have this plant, as the original died, but some cuttings had been given to a friend at Trewithen in Cornwall, and all our plants are descended from that generous act.