A love with 32,000 names (and still growing)

A largely neglected Camellia japonica continues to flower from mid July through to mid August each year outside our kitchen window. As our soil is impoverished alkaline fine sand at the foot of an old sand dune I’m always surprised at its resilience in surviving another Adelaide summer and still choosing to flower. Admittedly it has some shelter from the worst of the northern and western sun but the Le Fevre Peninsula is hardly Camellia heartland.

If your first love is Camellias don’t live on the Le Fevre Peninsula. However, if you’re interested in growing Camellias to enjoy extravagant flowers in the middle of winter but have been dissuaded by the prospect of failure don’t despair. Camellias are more resilient than they’re given credit for, and if your soil is so inhospitable that you’re unwilling to bury their roots, many make good container plants.

For an astonishing number their first love is Camellias. Tom Savige, from Wirlinga in New South Wales saw through the completion of the International Camellia Register in 1991. The Register included the 32,000 cultivar names, including 9000 oriental cultivars giving their names in Chinese and kanji characters with their transliteration into the Latin alphabet. Savige acknowledged the support he received from others in Australia, Professor E.G. Waterhouse of Camellia Grove Nursery (whose own garden, Eryldene in Sydney remains open to the public), Sydney nurseryman Walter Hazlewood of Hazlewood Brothers Nursery and former Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne director Alex Jessep. Clearly this staggering achievement was a labour of love.

Such passion is worthy of some reflection. The beauty of Camellias has seduced humans to select, cultivate and breed cultivars for over a thousand years. Camellia japonica, the commonly cultivated Camellia native to China and Japan appears in paintings and porcelain dating from the 11th century. Early illustrations are usually of the single red flowering type. Camellias were transplanted to Europe in the early 18th century where they achieved tremendous popularity. Alexander Macleay and William Macarthur are associated with the first importation of Camellias into Australia in 1826 and 1831. However Macarthur’s Camden Park nursery is celebrated as in large measure responsible for the early distribution of Camellias in Australia including the sale of plants to Bailey and Sons of Adelaide in 1853. The desire to grow them was perhaps in equal measure the virtue of beauty and the vices of avarice and trophyism. In Europe, as in Asia, the popularity of Camellias has waxed and waned over decades and centuries. However the devotion of monks in monasteries in Yunnan is without peer. For example a tree of the cultivar Mayetaohong was reputedly planted in 1347 during the Yuan Dynasty – the tree is now 10 metres high with the main trunk nearly 40cm in diameter.

Of course Camellias aren’t simply shrubs grown for dark green glossy evergreen foliage and overstated, beautiful flowers. Many of us enjoy dried and fermented Camellia leaves every day although the story of Camellia sinensis (originally known as Thea sinensis and commonly as tea) deserves at least its own column.

The doyens of Australia’s flourishing Camellia heritage alluded to in this essay have now all passed on but their commitment, passion, and love have passed onto others – many of whom are likely to be found at this year’s National Camellia Congress and Camellia Show in Adelaide this month.

The National Camellia Congress and Camellia Show will be held in Adelaide this year hosted by Camellia Society – Adelaide Hills Inc. from Thursday, August 23 to Sunday, August 26 at the Grand Chifley Hotel, 208 South Terrace, Adelaide. The program will be a rich one and will include visits to Stangate House, the marvellous Camellia garden managed by the National Trust and the Camellia Society (although at the time of writing this tour is already oversubscribed), and on the Saturday to the historically important Camellia specialist Newman’s Nursery and, pleasingly, Mount Lofty Botanic Gardens. Speakers on Sunday morning will include Jon Hall of Newman’s Nursery, Angus Irwin of Neutrog fertilisers launching Kahoona, a new fertiliser for Camellias (amongst other shrubs) and renowned plantsman and garden historian Ti-evor Nottle. Contact Camellia Society – Adelaide Hills Inc Secretary, Coralie Pricimore at cpridmore@adam.com.au or on 8370 9031 for registration and details.

August is a rich month for Camellias – the annual Camellia Show hosted by the Camellia Society – Adelaide Plains Inc will be open to the public at Carrick Hill on Saturday, August 11 from 12pm to 4.30pm and Sunday, August 12 from 10am to 4.30pm.

Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 1 August 2012.

For more information about the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, visit the website.

@StephenJForbes
@BotGardensSA

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