The Camellia

Likely everyone in the Pacific Northwest is familiar with the camellia shrub. Camellias bloom in the early part of the year from January to late spring and make excellent companion plants for that other staple woodland shrub, the rhododendron.

Credit: Peter Symcox

I recently came across a delightful story concerning the origin of the camellia plant.

Many years ago—in AD 510 to be precise—there was an Indian prince, a devout Buddhist, who journeyed to China as a missionary, devoting his life to teaching and sleeplessness. However, sleep overcame him on one occasion and this distressed him so much that in repentance, he cut off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. At which, Buddha caused them to sprout and take root.

The resulting plant became known as the Tea Plant, as the dried leaves tended to assume the shape of eyelids and were supposed to induce wakefulness. And then, many years later, another Buddhist monk was making a fire with the dried branches of the plant and clumsily allowed some of the leaves to fall into a pot of boiling water. He drank the resultant brew, and thus—it is said—the first pot of tea was brewed. Here, in the Pacific Northwest, we are mostly familiar with the red, pink or white-striped-with-pink flowers of the Camellia japonica. There are, in fact, camellias with pale-yellow to bronze-yellow flowers, which have recently been introduced from southern China and Vietnam. Camellias are not difficult to grow.

They are very popular and dramatic shrubs with a tendency to produce many blooms. And they will make excellent (large) container plants, although these would almost certainly have to be brought indoors for the winter or at least moved into a sheltered spot. Generally, camellias in the garden are hardy to zone 7 or 8. Camellias bloom in the early part of the year from January to late spring. Personally, I have always felt them to be a rather untidy, although beautiful, addition to the garden. They really are lovely things, have an aura of literary romance about them—remember Victor Hugo’s La Dame aux Camellias, to say nothing of Verdi’s La Traviata—and, for that alone, earn their place not only in the heart, but in the garden.