Sandy’s Garden ... Camellia Japonica

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Regular followers of this column will know that I enjoy crossword puzzles.

Particularly those which appear in my preferred daily newspaper – The Scotsman – which is, of course, a stablemate of The Falkirk Herald and Falkirk Today, which is why the editor allows it to be named in this column. Whatever, the clue for 2 down one day recently was: “Desert ship to be sick over tea plant (8).” As is common knowledge, the ‘desert ship’ … or ship of the desert … is the camel; and ‘sick over’ to the crossword compiler is a word for ‘sick’ reversed; and ‘ail’ is ‘sick’, which becomes ‘lia’ in reverse, making the answer ‘camellia’, which is also known as the tea plant. Aren’t crosswords easy when one understands the way the compiler thinks?

However, the camellia which is known as the tea plant is almost certainly not the same variety as is often found in Scotland and, indeed, is common in a great many countries. Camellia sinensis … the camellia from China … which was originally named Thea sinensis when it was introduced into England in the year 1768 … can be used to make a tea-like drink, the introduction of the plant being, I suspect, a bold attempt to replace the and jealously-protected and expensive imported Chinese tea with the leaves of a plant which could be grown in this country. But Camellia sinensis was, at best, only half-hardy even much further south in Great Britain; and it was the arrival of Camellia japonica … the Japanese camellia … which began the rise in popularity of this shrub, although the leaves of the Japanese camellia are not used as a substitute for tea.

The leaves do, however, explain the plant’s Japanese name of Tsubaki … the ‘tree with shining leaves’ … although we must thank the eighteenth century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus for bestowing the Latinised name Camellia japonica on it. Linnaeus named it Camellia … with a ‘c’ … after Father George Kamel … with a ‘k’ … an expert botanist and Moravian Jesuit priest who wrote a history of the plants of the Philippines while carrying out missionary work there during the seventeenth century. Since camellias were unknown in the Philippines and in Europe during his lifetime, Kamel almost certainly never saw one: but his name tells us that we should not pronounce the name of the plant named in his honour ‘cameelia’, as it often is.

The camellias offered for sale by virtually every garden centre nowadays are most often varieties of Camellia x williamsii, a hybrid version of Camellia japonica introduced by John Charles Williams … always known as J. C. Williams … a wealthy, well-connected and multi-talented gentleman of many interests who was an extremely successful hybridist. During the mid-nineteen-twenties, J. C. Williams crossed Camellia saluenensis with Camellia japonica to produce Camellia x williamsii, the hybrid which is the basis of many of the myriad varieties of camellia available to the gardener today. Undemanding in that they require no pruning, shed their own withered blooms naturally, are disease-resistant and settle for growing to a height of 2 – 2 ½ metres … say, 6 to 8 feet in old money. With glossy foliage all year round and masses of showy flowers in the early part of the season between late March and the middle of May, a time when most shrubs are only thinking about producing blooms. The one thing to be careful of here in central Scotland is that the flower buds of camellias can be damaged by sharp frost and by chilly north-easterly winds, neither of which is unknown during a typical Scottish winter. They will do best where they are given some protection, particularly from that wind. But I would not use the leaves to make a cuppa!