Flora Feature: Camellia

img_20151130_072754-1As winter approaches, many gardeners are beginning to look for plants to extend the length of the growing season. One of their top picks is the camellia. These beautiful evergreen shrubs, once considered the jewel of the southern garden, exhibit large, striking flowers ranging from pink and red to white.

Camellias truly are a cosmopolitan flower. Cultivated in the gardens of China and Japan centuries before they were imported to Europe, camellias draw a line that can be traced throughout Asian culture. In China, the flower functions as a symbol of longevity, while in Japan, camellias stand up as symbols of the divine and the spiritual, and are often affiliated with the spring season. In Korea, camellias are utilized for weddings and religious ceremonies.

These beautiful imported plants from Asia are often called tea flowers because of Camellia sinensis, or black tea. The ornamental Camellia japonica and their hybrids are bred for showier flowers rather than tea production. With the expansion of the tea trade in the 18th century, new varieties came to England by way of the East India Tea Company. While the species name, Camellia, came from Father George Joseph Kamel, a Jesuit missionary and botanist who worked in the Philippines, many of the cultivated varieties were then named after patrons of the gardeners who grew them.

Eventually the camellia found its way from England to America in 1797 when Colonel John Stevens brought the flower to Hoboken, New Jersey as part of an effort to grow attractions within Elysian. Unfortunately, early varieties were not hardy enough to withstand the cold climate of New Jersey. While the flower remained as a popular conservatory specimen, they eventually fell out of fashion with the introduction of the orchid.

Decades of extensive breeding have granted us with hardier varieties of camellias. While winter-blooming camellias are still not suited for northeastern climate—where flowers are susceptible to damage by frost—fall blooming camellias are an excellent addition to any garden. Madison Square Park has been working to grow its camellia collection since 2011, with a goal of cultivating the largest collection of cold-hardy camellias in the northeast by 2019. We currently have five different varieties of camellia growing in the Park including Winter’s Star, Northern Exposure, April Rose, and Winter’s Charm. You can catch all of these camellias in full blooms at the 26th Street and Madison Avenue entrance. These beautiful flowers will continue to bloom into December, when temperatures drop even further.

First camellia of the season!

First camellia of the season!