Camellias

February through March

MOBOT Camellia

Walk into the Linnean House in winter and you will enter a world of brilliant color and delicate fragrance to delight the senses of the winter-weary visitor. While some camellias flower as early as October, the main show begins in December and lasts through April. With 260 species and counting, camellias have been cultivated for over 2,000 years for their economic value.

They are native to Southeast Asia, primarily southern China and Japan, although a few species are found in India, Malaysia, Borneo, and Korea. The seeds of some camellia species are crushed for their high-quality oil, which is used in cooking, cosmetics, and hairdressing, but the plant is probably best know as the source of tea.

Most tea is made from Camellia sinensis. For black tea, the leaves are first crushed or rolled, then allowed to partially ferment, and then dry. Green tea comes from the same plant, but the leaves are not fermented. When tea was introduced in Europe in the early 17th century, it was strictly for the wealthy—a pound of tea cost the equivalent of a year’s salary. Today, tea is the world’s most popular beverage.

Early botanist Carl Linnaeus (hence Linnean House) dubbed the plant “camellia” as a posthumous honor of a German Jesuit missionary to the Philippines, Georg Kamel, who died in Manilla in 1706. Kamel, whose name in Latin is Camellus, is thought never to have seen a camellia, but was well known for his work on oriental plants. Seeds of camellias first traveled to Europe from Asia on spice ships in the mid-18th century, when importers hoped to establish tea farms locally.

While the flowers of the tea plant are not particularly showy, seeds of other camellia species were imported at the same time and soon became popular as ornamental plants, particularly the species C. japonica, C. reticulata, and C. sasanqua. Look in the Linnean House for the beautiful white flowers of one of the oldest cultivars, Camellia japonica ‘Alba Plena.’ The Garden’s specimen is over 60 years old.

Camellias were brought to the United States from England in 1798 and were widely grown in conservatories in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York during the middle of the 19th century. Today they are popularly grown outdoors in the southeastern states (C. japonica is the state flower of Alabama) and along the west coast. While they were not considered winter hardy in St. Louis, a few recent “very cold hardy” cultivars have shown promise here, even in temperatures down to –10 degrees F. Camellias can also be grown in containers and moved indoors, but the plants must be kept below 55 degrees at night during the winter, as warmer night temperatures cause their buds to drop.

Camellia Collection

MObot Camellia

The Missouri Botanical Garden houses the majority of its camellia collection in the Linnaean House.  The Linnaean House, built during Henry Shaw’s lifetime, in 1882, is the longest continually operating greenhouse west of the Mississippi River. The building is a truly Victorian design, with stained glass windows and three busts of renowned scientists: Karl Linnaeus, the father of the system of taxonomy still in use throughout the world today; Asa Gray, an American plant taxonomist; and Thomas Nuttal, a botanist who first described many of the native plants along the Missouri river shed.  The Linnaean House was originally used to house the garden’s palm and citrus plants, and at one time included lean-to greenhouses.

The Missouri Botanical Garden collection includes several Camellia varieties, many from the most commonly grown species, Camellia japonica, which comprises thousands of cultivated varieties.  The blooms of C. japonica are most often white, delicate or vibrant pink or dark red, while different species within the genus bring in novel colors such as the yellow flowers of C. chrysanthoides.  Variation in the species C. japonica comes at the cultivar level: ‘Debutante’ has large, light pink peony-style blooms, while ‘Nobilissima’ has large, white semi-double blooms.  The collection includes species samples such as C. rosiflora, which has a low shrub habit and a delicate fragrance; and C. petelotii, which is native to the dense forests in southern China and Vietnam.  

Additional camellias were planted in 2007 at the Garden’s Kemper Center for Home Gardening and within the Woodland Garden. The cultivars ‘April Snow’, ‘April Tryst’, ‘April Dawn’, and ‘Spring’s Promise’ are semi-hardy and are being tested for winter-hardiness in the St. Louis region.

The camellia flower has its beginnings in mid-summer, when the new buds begin to form deep in the terminal meristems. Pruning and shaping are done before the buds form, and the plants are mulched but not fertilized.  The flowers, which require a chill period, open between October and April, depending on the species. Our earliest camellias start to open in late December with peak bloom the month of February. Valentine’s Day is always a good time to come.  By late March, blooming finishes indoors. The outdoor camellias in our trials are expected to bloom in April but sporadic flowers can occur later in the year as well.  In St. Louis, a camellia holds a special place in the hearts of avid gardeners and casual passers-by alike. A welcome respite, our camellias start to bloom in the depths of winter.