Camellia, the camellias, is a genus of flowering plants in the family Theaceae. They are found in eastern and southern Asia, from the Himalayas east to Japan and Indonesia. There are 100–250 described species, with some controversy over the exact number. The genus was named by Linnaeus after the Jesuit botanist Georg Joseph Kamel, who worked in the Philippines, though he never described a camellia. This genus is famous throughout East Asia; camellias are known as cháhuā (茶花) in Chinese, "tea flower", an apt designation, as tsubaki (椿) in Japanese, as dongbaek-kkot (동백꽃) in Korean and as hoa trà or hoa chè in Vietnamese.
The most famous member – though often not recognized as a camellia – is certainly the tea plant (C. sinensis). Among the ornamental species, Camellia japonica and C. sasanqua are perhaps the most widely known, though most camellias grown for their flowers are cultivars or hybrids.
Camellias were cultivated in the gardens of China and Japan for centuries before they were seen in Europe. The German botanist Engelbert Kaempfer reported that the "Japan Rose", as he called it grew wild in woodland and hedgerow, but that many superior varieties had been selected for gardens. He was told that the plant had 900 names in Japanese. Europeans' earliest views of camellias must have been their representations in Chinese painted wallpapers, where they were often represented growing in porcelain pots.
The first living camellias seen in England were a single red and a single white, grown and flowered in his garden at Thorndon Hall, Essex, by Robert James, Lord Petre, among the keenest gardeners of his generation, in 1739. His gardener James Gordon was the first to introduce camellias to commerce, from the nurseries he established after Lord Petre's untimely death in 1743, at Mile End, Essex, near London.
With the expansion of the tea trade in the later 18th century, new varieties began to be seen in England, imported through the British East India Company. The Company's John Slater was responsible for the first of the new camellias, double ones, in white and a striped red, imported in 1792. Further camellias imported in the East Indiamen were associated with the patrons whose gardeners grew them: a double red for Sir Robert Preston in 1794 and the pale pink named "Lady Hume's Blush" for Amelia, the lady of Sir Abraham Hume of Wormleybury, Hertfordshire (1806). By 1819, twenty-five camellias had bloomed in England; that year the first monograph appeared, Samuel Curtis's, A Monograph on the Genus Camellia, whose five handsome folio colored illustrations have usually been removed from the slender text and framed. Camellias that set seed, though they did not flower for more than a decade, rewarded their growers with a wealth of new varieties. By the 1840s, the camellia was at the height of its fashion as the luxury flower. The Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis, who died young in 1847 inspired Dumas' La Dame aux camélias and Verdi's La Traviata.
The fashionable imbricated formality of prized camellias was an element in their decline, replaced by the new hothouse orchid. Their revival after World War I as woodland shrubs for mild climates has been paralleled by the rise in popularity of Camellia sasanqua.
Today camellias are grown as ornamental plants for their flowers; about 3,000 cultivars and hybrids have been selected, many with double or semi-double flowers. C. japonica is the most prominent species in cultivation, with over 2,000 named cultivars. Next are C. reticulata with over 400 named cultivars, and C. sasanqua with over 300 named cultivars. Popular hybrids include C. × hiemalis (C. japonica × C. sasanqua) and C. × williamsii (C. japonica × Camellia saluenensis|C. saluenensis). Some varieties can grow to a considerable size, up to 100m², though more compact cultivars are available. They are frequently planted in woodland settings, alongside other calcifuges such as rhododendrons, and are particularly associated with areas of high soil acidity, such as Cornwall and Devon in the UK. They are highly valued for their very early flowering, often among the first flowers to appear in the late winter. Late frosts can damage the flower buds, resulting in misshaped flowers.
There is great variety of flower forms:-
single (flat, bowl- or cup-shaped)
semi-double (rows of large outer petals, with the centre comprising mixed petals and stamens)
paeony form (convex mass of irregular petals and petaloids with hidden stamens)
anemone form (one or more rows of outer petals, with mixed petaloids and stamens in the centre)
rose form (overlapping petals showing stamens in a concave centre when open)
formal double (rows of overlapping petals with hidden stamens)
The following hybrid cultivars have gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit:-