Photographs: Charles Francis
April 2008: When the first camellias came to Cornwall, on board 18th century merchant ships, they were thought to be so fragile that they could only survive if they were pampered in expensive glasshouses. The early enthusiasts who tended their treasures so carefully would be amazed to discover that, more than 200 years later, these apparently delicate plants have become the showpieces of countless Cornish gardens, great and small.
Camellia Japonica Alba Simplex
Camellias were introduced to Cornwall as a by-product of the international tea trade. Officers from the East India Company would pack them with their personal luggage before setting off on the return voyage from Canton, where they had set up a trading post. Some were brought back as exotic presents for friends, and others were presented to rich patrons.
As camellia expert Bee Wilson observes, the plants had to survive a long and arduous journey from China, which should have given a clue to the fact that they were actually very hardy. “They were far more likely to be trampled during loading, crushed by shifting cargo, expire from lack of water or washed overboard than to arrive safely at their destination,” she says.
Yet many did survive, and in the next few years, nurseries began to raise different varieties. In 1819, there were 29; by 1838, there were 300; and 50 years later, there were thousands. The Cornish camellia is here to stay.
Camellia Japonica Dianthiflora
Bee, who is based at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, is currently researching Cornwall’s early camellias, and will be giving a paper at the International Camellia Congress, which takes place in Falmouth between April 2 and 5. The International Camellia Society’s decision to stage the prestigious biannual event in Cornwall is testament to the county’s worldwide reputation as a haven for camellias.
The congress took place in Melbourne, Australia, two years ago, and will be going to Kurume, Japan, in 2010. It is a global meeting of minds, which offers a unique opportunity to discuss the latest research in camellia classification, hybridisation and propagation. It is also a chance to meet fellow enthusiasts and visit some of the host country’s most outstanding gardens.
The 200 delegates, from around 20 countries, will have a packed programme during their stay in Cornwall, attending lectures and visiting Mount Edgcumbe, Antony Woodland Garden, Tregothnan, Caerhays, Tregrehan and the Eden Project. Their final engagement is the Cornwall Spring Flower Show at Boconnoc, where they will be greeted by a spectacular display of camellias in honour of their visit.
Bee is hoping that congress delegates will be able to solve some of the problems she faces in trying to identify Cornwall’s first camellias. When Heligan invited her, eight years ago, to label and propagate the early varieties before they were lost, she had no idea what a complex task she was taking on. “Good cuttings usually take six to eight weeks — but I discovered that cuttings from old varieties take six to eight months, and in that first year, we only produced about half a dozen.
“At the same time, I was compiling a database, containing information about the location of each variety, the size and shape of the tree and leaf, and the colour of the flower. I was also trying to assess when they might have been planted. Some were against a wall, which suggests they were planted at a time when camellias were thought to be tender. Some are in the area where we know plants would have been put before they were planted out. I suspect that these were stood in pots ready for planting, but after the First World War, no gardeners came back to Heligan, so the camellias were never put out.
“I also tried to find out about the interests of members of the Tremayne family, who lived at Heligan, so that I could work out possible planting dates. It was halfway between a whodunnit and a treasure hunt. What makes the Heligan camellias so special is that they are a snapshot of what was available at the time.”
John Hearle Tremayne was squire of Heligan during the first flowering of the camellia craze in the early 19th century, and was an enthusiastic gardener. “It was in his time that the first camellias were probably planted, and they may have included the deep red Camellia japonica ‘Athaeiflora’ on the Western Ride, and the lovely white japonica ‘Fimbriata’ planted at the top of the Ravine,” says Bee.
Camellia Japonica Athaeiflora
The years between 1860 and 1890 were the heyday of the camellia, and the next squire, John Tremayne, was able to choose from a huge variety of new cultivars. His choices included the distinctive striped varieties, planted in about 1875. But Bee has to use a great deal of guesswork, as no detailed records on planting appear to have been kept. She has fantasies about finding old plant books in the back of a drawer — but the drawers of Heligan have failed to yield such useful documents.
By the end of the 19th century, the popularity of camellias was declining, as the great plant hunters, like George Forrest and E H Wilson, started bringing back other exotic plants from China. The William Bull nursery, which had offered 300 varieties in its catalogue, reduced the number to three.
But in Cornwall, camellias never really went out of fashion, because the climate and the soil had proved to suit them so well. The plant hunters were always keen to trial new varieties, and by the 1920s, camellias were enjoying renewed popularity when J C Williams of Caerhays began hybridising them, with notable success. Some of these later varieties were planted by the last Heligan squire, Jack Tremayne, before he left the estate in 1925.
In trying to identify the camellias of various different eras at Heligan, Bee has consulted various reference books, and visited gardens in Switzerland and Italy — where many cultivars were raised in the late 19th century — in search of matches for as yet unnamed varieties.
“Of the 20 old varieties at Heligan, I am pretty confident of the identity of about half of them,” she says. “But I only put names on them when I am sure what they are. Camellias are very variable. In some, most of the buds come from one piece of genetic material, and then there’s an odd branch from another piece, which produces flowers of a different colour.
Camellia Japonica Noblissima
“But the exciting thing is that the oldest camellias in the garden date from before the 1920s, and Heligan has just been given National Collection status by the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens to ensure that these varieties are preserved.”
Bee’s favourite camellias include ‘Mary Thomas (Heligan)’, which was named after the wife of a tenant on the estate who admired it, and it thought to be unique to Heligan. The semi-double deep pink ‘Gloire de Nantes’ is also much-loved at Heligan, because it flowers at Christmas.
Camellia Japonica Gloire de Nantes
But having survived everything from being shipped thousands of miles in cramped conditions to the indignity of falling out of fashion, camellias are now facing their most serious threat yet: Phytophthora ramorum, or sudden oak death (SOD). Camellias, along with rhododendrons and magnolias, are particularly susceptible to the disease, a fungal-like pathogen, so it could have a devastating effect on some of the great Cornish gardens.
Duchy College at Rosewarne, near Camborne, has the only laboratory in the country licensed by the Plant Health and Safety Inspectorate to propagate plant material that is potentially infected with SOD. In 2001, Heligan gave the college £10,000’s worth of equipment to carry out micropropagation of camellias and rhododendrons. Additional funding has now been acquired from the Combined Universities in Cornwall, Defra and the EU Objective 1 programme, and is now being sought from the owners of gardens at risk of SOD.
The college’s rare species project manager, Ros Smith, and her team, have experimented with material from 17 different gardens — but although there has been great success with rhododendrons, all attempts to produce new camellias have so far failed. Bee explains why camellias present particular problems in the lab: “Their colouring is sometimes caused by a virus, and if the plant’s growth rate outgrows the virus, you end up with plain red camellias.”
So, for the moment, she is concentrating on different methods of propagation. “One of the things I am trying to do when propagating the old varieties is to find a safe place for them, so that the trees become infected, we will still be able to propagate from these cuttings,” she says.
With a little help from their friends, the camellias of Cornwall will continue to delight visitors to the county’s glorious spring gardens for a long time to come. Here’s to the next 200 years.
Camellia japonica Auguste Delfosse