On a trip to a garden centre, I was amazed to see an extensive array of camellias in pots with masses of plump flower buds already to emerge into an explosion of long-lasting blooms.
Yes, camellias are still my favourite evergreen shrubs.
Camellias belong to a massive family, some of which are used to produce tea. The species grown for tea drinking is called Camellia sinensis, which has a comparatively small leaf and single small flowers.
It’s not one widely grown because there are lots of cultivars (cultivated varieties) which are far more attractive. One important reason why it is grown is that children can be shown what a tea plant looks like.
At places such as the Staunton Country Park at Havant, it is used as part of educational visits. You would be surprised how many adults don’t know that Camellia sinensis is responsible for the tea a lot of us drink every day.
One of the lesser-known groups of the camellia is Camellia sasanqua. This is a bit tender in northern parts, but here in the south it’s hardy in the garden once it has been established for three years.
The advantage is that it blooms during mild spells from October to April.
During the winter there are several flowers open at one time when there is little else in bloom. But, like many of the other camellias, it has masses of flowers to end its season of beauty in April.
Nearly everyone calls camellias ‘cameellias’, but the correct pronunciation is camel-ias (as in the animal) because the whole group celebrates the name of George Joseph Kamel, a Jesuit priest who travelled widely in the East.
The first ones to arrive in Britain came from China in ships owned by the East India Company in 1792.
There’s another connection with Staunton Country Park because George Staunton brought several varieties back from China – and one of the largest camellia trees in Britain still stands in the park.
When camellias were introduced into Britain, they were grown in conservatories because they were not hardy.
But as they grew too large for glasshouses, cuttings were taken to replace the initial plants. The mature plants were planted outdoors and gardeners found that if they were in the right place, they would survive!
If you’re looking for camellias, you’ll often see a plastic picture with the name of the variety. Most gardeners look for their favourite colour, then decide whether to buy a single-flowered bloom, a semi-double, double or an anemone centre.