I spent a few days in Washington DC and toured many of the Smithsonian Museums. Our favorite of all was the Natural History Museum. We viewed many different exhibits on the world’s history including the origins of plant life. I was so intrigued with all of this information. It was like I was seeing it for the first time. Somehow I chose to forget what I had learned from my 10th grade biology classes. It began a thought process on the origins of the Camellia and how it is classified in the plant world the way it is.
Taxonomy and biological classification
Carolus Linnaeus, and 18th century Swedish botanist, is responsible for most of the world’s classification of plants and animals, otherwise known as Taxonomy. Although the naming of plants and animals is an age-old habit, Linnaeus’ system of taxonomy remains today as the most widely used method for plant and animal classification.
Linnaeus was an arrogant but highly intelligent botanist. He was not modest to tell people later in life that 'no man has ever transformed science in the way that I have.' He published a book called Species Plantarum in 1753. This book contained a listing of all plants known to him at that time and was the world’s first plant encyclopedia. This book completely changed the way plants were named.
Linnaeus designed a two word plant name system that we still use today. This type of name is called “binomial” meaning having two names. We often refer to this as the botanical name. The first name is to indicate the genus and is always capitalized. The second is to indicate the species and is always listed with a small letter. For example, Camellia japonica - Camellia is the genus and japonica indicates the species. Linnaeus went one step further. He allowed for the name of the person that developed the plant to follow the species. For example Camellia japonica L or Camellia japonica Linnaeus, as he often abbreviated. Today this further classification after the species name is often used to describe a variety, or a seedling or cultivar of a particular species. Commonly used are names in honor of someone, or specific name to distinguish the variety or cultivar. For example, Camellia japonica Pink Perfection, or Camellia hiemalis Yuletide
Linnaeus loved naming plants after people he admired. He named the genus Magnolia after the French botanist Pierre Magnol and the Camellia after Josef Kamel, a fellow botanist. Linnaeus also was a vindictive man and named plants after people he did not like! He named the species Sigesbeckia after a critic Johann Siegesbeck that he often disagreed with. Sigesbeckia is a species of plant that is creeping in nature and grows in the mud. Seems like he called it like he saw it!
The Classification of Camellias
The easy version of plant classification is: Kingdom, Order, Family, Genus, Variety or Cultivar. There are a lot of other breakdowns between Kingdom and Species, and for this article we will not get that technical. When tracing the classification of camellias, it’s fairly simple.
Kingdom - Plantae
Kingdom is the classification of all living organisms. This kingdom contains several divisions for animals and plants. Camellias belong to the Plantae Kingdom.
Order - Ericales
Ericales are of the rank “Order” and are a further division of the dicotyledons, or ‘dicots’. Dicots are plants that produce seeds with two embryonic leaves. Some common Ericales are Camellia, Azalea, Blueberry, and Kiwi.
Family is the further division of groupings of plants that have similar characteristics. Camellias belong to the family of Theaceae. Azaleas belong to the family of Ericaceae. Roses belong to the family of Rosaceae and the list goes on and on. Each of these families have certain characteristics that are similar that put them in the same family. For example, plants in the Theaceae family are characterized by leaves that are serrated and glossy, more predominantly evergreen, but some deciduous species are included in this family such as the Franklinina and Stewartia. Plants also tend to have multi stamens, and fruit tends to be in capsules, or seed pods.
Genus - Camellia
Family is further broken down in to genus. The family of Theaceae includes the genus Camellia. Three genus of Theaceae are native to the Southeastern United States - Franklinia, Stewartia, & Gordonia. Camellia is the most popular genus in the family of Theaceae.
Genus is divided into species. A common definition of species is a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring of both genders. There are over 250 known species of the genus camellia in the world today. The most common species of camellia are Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua. The genus Camellia is further divided into a group called Thea. This division includes the camellia species of C. sinensis, C. taliensis and C. irrawadiensis. These species in the Thea division contain caffeine, theobromine and theophylline which are not found in any other species or in the Theaceae family. These camellia species are used for making tea – with Camellia sinensis being the most popular.
The final breakdown in the classification of plants if variety or cultivar. For example, Camellia japonica ‘Pink Perfection’ is a cultivar or variety of the genus Camellia and species japonica. A variety or cultivar was derived from sexual propagation of the species which means that pollen and stamen from two different flowers joined together to form a seed pod. If the two parents were of the same species, such as japonica, then the resulting plant is a japonica and is genetically different from all other plants. Thus it is now considered a variety or cultivar and can have a unique name, such as ‘Pink Perfection’ added just behind the species name. In the event the plant was a result from seed and pollen from parents of different species, such as japonica and sasanqua, then the resulting variety or cultivar would be classified as a hybrid.
In a nutshell….
The classification of plants can be as simple or as complicated as you wish to make it. The only thing that really matters in the world of camellia taxonomy is that that all camellias have one true characteristic – they are simply beautiful!