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The Rose of China or...  How the Camellia got its name 
 
 
There are plum blossoms, too, but 
The flower that shows 
The brightness of the coming year 
Is surely the camellia 
Japanese poem by Yūkō, Heian period (794-c1192) 

 
There can be few plants which have such a long documented history as the camellia.

Most of us drink the juice of the camellia nearly every-day - in the form of tea- it is the leaves of Camellia sinensis from which the beverage is derived, and anciently the shrub has been cultivated for so long in China and Japan that there is no recorded discovery of when the first chadō (tea) bush was found.  

 
Tsubaki, the shrub with shining leaves – the name the Japanese gave to the camellia- was first known in the west as the ‘Rose of China’; because of the shape and the colour of the flowers and the rose-like look of the leaves. It was in 1753, that Linnaeus named the Camellia genus. He chose to name the plant after a Jesuit missionary, Brother George Kamel (1661-1706) the tercentenary of whose death occurs on May 1st this year. Like so many plants named to commemorate an individual, the recipient rarely knew of the honour or knew of the plant. So it is with the Camellia. Brother Kamel was born in what is now Brno in the Czech Republic, (where in 1822 Gregor Mendel was born, famous for his inheritance experiments with peas, proving dominant and recessive characters). Kamel became a Jesuit Brother in 1682, and in 1688 was sent as a missionary to the Philippine island of Luzon where he was appointed the Infirmarian (modern Medical Director) of the College at Manila. His horticultural fame rests on the studies he made not only of the flora of the Philippines, but also observations he carried out on animals, fishes, serpents, insects and birds. Despite the difficulties of communications, Kamel began corresponding with the naturalist John Ray (1627-1705) who greatly admired his work, writing to Sir Hans Sloane that he ‘seemed well skilled in botanics’. Sloane too was impressed by Brother Kamel’s natural history drawings and descriptions, and all of his studies were published between 1699 and 1709 by The Royal Society. It was nearly forty years later when Linnaeus was compiling his Species Plantarum that he decided to honour the Jesuit brother by attaching his name to the ‘Rose of China’. One plant which Kamel would not have been able to describe would have been his namesake plant as the Philippines are a camellia-free zone.  
 
The genus Camellia contains some 270 species; and without exception the evergreen shrubs are all native of the far-east, growing in Thailand, through Myanmar (Burma) Vietnam, China, and Japan. Of these, Camellia japonica, C. reticulate and C. sasanqua are the main species which have been used in developing some of the 30,000 cultivars and hybrids now available. 
 
There is some dispute as to when camellias first were brought to Europe, but it seems entirely feasible that the Portuguese can claim the honour, they were the earliest European traders to reach Japan, in 1542 about eight or so years before camellias were recorded as growing in Oporto, Portugal. There then follows a gap of some two hundred years, before the next reference occurs, this time in England; where Lord Robert Petre of Thorndon Hall in Essex, a very knowledgeable botanist, is known to have been growing C. japonica in 1745. By about 1760 another species C. sasanqua, was thriving in Italy in the gardens of the royal palace at Caserta. It was from there that camellia seeds were taken by l’Abbé Berlese, of Sainte-Rose in Italy to Paris in 1819, when he was appointed chaplain to the French Court. A few years earlier keen gardeners in Belgium and Germany had begun to experiment with growing the evergreen shrub. Although plants thrived outside in southern Europe, in northern Europe all camellias were grown in hot and humid stove houses. It was not until tentative experiments were carried out (in England at Vauxhall, London) with a C. japonica variety ‘Elegans’, which turned out to be hardy enough ‘…to bear being exposed during winter in the open air’, that it was realised that camellia shrubs could be grown outside. As they became more widely known and newer varieties of camellia were bred, they became popular all over Europe. In France they caused a sensation, and Parisian society adopted the flower as its own symbol of elegance: no member of the beau monde considered himself properly dressed without a camellia boutonnière.  
 
Today camellias are popular all over the world, and no wonder - they are almost the perfect shrub, particularly for Northern Europeans as their blooms burst forth from voluptuous buds during the dullest winter days of the year, their evergreen leaves shine and glitter in the sun, they require neither pruning or staking. During the summer months the shrubs can merge into the background or become a foil for a fast growing climber. Brother Kamel would have been astounded at the pleasure his name gives to gardeners worldwide.