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Plant Journeys blog post #2 – Camellia: winter's delight

Written by Dr Minna Törmä (Senior Lecturer in History of Art, University of Glasgow) 
Red flowers stand out against foliage in various shades of green.
Our gardens are a treasure trove of flora from across the world. In the second part of our blog series, Dr Minna Törmä continues to explores the East Asian plants found in the garden of ‘Glasgow Boy’, Edward Atkinson Hornel. 

The common camellia is an evergreen shrub which can flower early in the year, even when there is still snow on the ground. This year at Broughton Garden the camellia was in flower before January came to an end. It is a member of the tea family, originally named Thea chinensis, and thrives in the regions of Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Sichuan, Yunnan and Guangdong in China. The plant is named after Georg Kamel (1661–1706), a German missionary and pioneering botanist who documented the flora and fauna of the Philippines.

In Broughton Garden, there are two cultivars of Camellia japonica, ‘Adolphe Audusson’ and ‘Hakurakuten’. In spite of its name, C. japonica is not originally unique to Japan but is native to a broader geographical area within East Asia. The name is based on a description by Engelbert Kaempfer (1651–1716) of a camellia he saw in Japan in 1712. The species native to Japan is C. sasanqua (tsubaki in Japanese).

Camellia, with its ability to bloom in the snow, is often seen as a symbol of resilience. That’s why it is commonly included in winter flower arrangements, along with other early blooming plants like narcissus and wintersweet or plum blossoms. In the Plant Journeys exhibition, you can find camellia paired with narcissus and plum. Additionally, there is a kimono pattern book in the Broughton House collection featuring a camellia in snow.

The flowering of camellia usually coincides with the Chinese New Year and therefore it forms an important part in the New Year decorations. In addition, camellias are often paired with plum or various birds as a decorative motif. We also find these combinations in poetry, for example, the following haiku by Matsuo Bashō (1644–94) pairs plum with camellia in a wintry image:

‘plum and camellia:

praise to their early bloom

here in Hobi village’

[David Landis Barnhill, trans., Bashō’s Journey: The Literary Prose of Matsuo Bashō (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005), p. 25]

As with so many other plant imageries, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish camellia from rose, peony or even hibiscus, depending on the level of simplification the blossoms and leaves have gone through. For example, a Chinese lacquer box (pictured above) decorated with a single flower probably features a camellia. This could be compared with the camellia branch on a Japanese lacquer box which is more instantly recognisable.

Dr Törmä’s research can be explored further in a new exhibition, Plant Journeys: Stories of East Asian Plants in Hornel’s Home and Garden, which runs from now until 31 October at Broughton House, Kirkcudbright.

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