American Camellias ~ The History of Camellias In America

American Camellias ~ The History of Camellias In America

Debbie Odom

The first mention of camellia in history is that of Camellia sinensis, or as we call, the tea plant. Over the centuries, camellia sinensis has become the source for the world’s second most consumed beverage next to water—TEA.   Legend has that around 5000 bc, a Chinese monk, tired and weary from his work,  began a pot of soup but before he could add ingredients, leaves from a nearby tree blew into his brew and as he tasted it, he instantly felt refreshed.  After a cup of tea, you can understand why this beverage has remained throughout the centuries.

The first records of ornamental camellias other than tea plants date back nearly 2000 years ago in Chinese literature and in artwork.   Writings and paintings describe clearly Camellia japonica in its natural state—simple and single.  Camellia sasanqua is noted to be native from Japan.   Camellias first found in temples and in the places of noblemen, soon made its way into the gardens of commoners or those of lesser nobility.   China, Japan and Southeast Asia are thought to hold the nativity of camellias, in one form or another.

Camellias slowly made their way from their native homelands into other areas—Europe, Australia, New Zealand and North America.  Each of these regions has climates within their borders that are suitable for growing camellias, and in some areas they have thrived since the early part of the 18th century. 

The first camellias brought into North America were in the latter 1700’s and were sent to Savannah, Georgia.  These were seeds of Camellia sinensis and were sent to the Trust Gardens in the hopes that tea could be established here as an agricultural crop.   For many reasons, the tea did not survive and it would be some time before it could be established again, this time in Charleston South Carolina.

Camellia japonica soon arrived to North America and it was certainly a plant species for the rich and wealthy, often grown in glass greenhouses in the north because the winters were too harsh. It wasn’t long before Camellias made their way down south to antebellum gardens underneath Live Oaks trees dripping in Spanish moss and they found a climate very suitable for their culture.  Some of the oldest camellias today can be found in these old plantation gardens such as Magnolia Gardens in Charleston South Carolina - the south’s first romantic garden.  Middleton Place, also in Charleston SC is home to a formal garden bursting with camellias, simple in form, that stand majestically on the banks of the Ashley River.  Camellia fever spread to all parts of the country and to the gardens of simple folk as well as the noble plantation owners.  The latter part of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century there was a camellia boom of sorts and everyone was planting, sharing and developing some of the most beautiful camellias that we have today.

As part of the Camellia boom that hit, Camellia shows began springing up in the 1930’s and 1940’s and were a site to see, as they still are today.  People would come from everywhere, bringing in baskets full of camellias to present for exhibition - sometimes thousands at a time.  Years ago, The Men’s Garden Club in Savannah GA reported at one of their shows, over 5000 blooms entered into competition.  During this time, Camellia clubs developed and people who appreciated the flower, all became members and most of these sponsored camellia shows to engage in friendly and sometimes not-so-friendly competition.  Today there are hundreds of camellia organizations with membership in just about every city and country that grows camellias around the world.

Camellias have certainly come a long way from their humble, single form beginnings and in a relatively short period of time.  With the advancements in hybridizing, new varieties and possibilities are emerging every day.  Blue camellias? Summer blooming camellias?  Why not!  It’s all possible and hopefully something you will see in the future!