Camellias 'were luxury status symbols' and now they're as common as a cup of tea

A flowering camellia shrub in Sidmouth

A flowering camellia shrub in Sidmouth - Credit: Ed Dolphin

January and February are the gloomiest months of the year, but they are the main flowering time for one of our visitors from China, the Camellia. Camellias are evergreen shrubs and trees that dislike the extremes of frost and hot sun, which is why they are so at home in our valley.

Camellia in flower

Camellia in flower - Credit: Ed Dolphin

The first Camellias were brought from China more than 250 years ago. They were luxury status symbols, partly because of the exotic origins, but also because they were thought to be tender and needed a glasshouse to grow. There was a Victorian Camellia house in the garden of Sidholme, now reduced to an octagonal raised bed adorned with a flowering Cherry. You can still see the cast iron steam pipes around the base.

Camellia flower

Camellia - Credit: Ed Dolphin

We now have many varieties that thrive outside. Their dense habit and glossy rounded leaves make a bold statement all year round, and, if they are pruned correctly, the profuse flowers brighten the winter garden.
Most Camellia varieties range from bright white, through pink to deep red, although there are some yellow forms from Vietnam. In Sidmouth, Camellias flower from December to Easter, with occasional flowers through the summer.

A flowering camellia

A flowering camellia - Credit: Ed Dolphin

Wild Camellias have relatively simple flowers with 5-9 petals and a prominent ring of stamens. The simple, single flowered varieties are a great help to overwintering bees and wasps that feed on the pollen.

Camellia in flower

Camellia in flower - Credit: Ed Dolphin

Camellias have been cultivated for thousands of years in China, Korea and Japan and there are at least 3,000 varieties, many with double and semi-double flowers where the stamens have developed as bracteoles that look like extra petals. The more complex double forms satisfy the human eye but, as there are no stamens, there is no food for insects.
We grow Camellias for their flowers, but most of the world’s Camellia bushes are grown for their leaves. These are a Chinese Camellia, and their leaves are used to brew tea. Originally, it was drunk as a herbal remedy, its caffeine content is a nervous system stimulant. Now it is the most popular hot drink in Britain. Time to put the kettle on.

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