Camellias are such a common garden plant throughout much of temperate and subtropical Australia that many of us would not even bother to stop and take a good look at one. In Japan, however, it is a tree that is as much celebrated as the renowned cherry blossoms as a harbinger of spring.
Camellia species are evergreen trees and shrubs found through parts of eastern and southern Asia, with the greatest variety found in southern China to the highlands of Southeast Asia. As many would be familiar, the tea plant is a camellia of Chinese origin, Camellia sinensis. Camellias grow wild throughout much of Japan. Of the wild species, Camellia japonica (the so-called Japanese camellia, and ‘tsubaki’ in Japanese) is by far the most widespread, extending from the frost-free subtropical Okinawan islands to the northern parts of Honshū island with its long snowy winters when temperatures can sometimes nudge minus 20 degrees. The species also occurs naturally in the southern Korean Peninsula, parts of eastern China, and Taiwan. In this article, I will focus on this particular species and will be, for simplicity, referring to it as ‘camellia’.
In Japan, wild camellia can be found growing under an amazing range of conditions. They are often found as small understorey trees in evergreen and deciduous forests. In damp sheltered gullies, however, they can morph into stately forest trees over 20 m tall. They can tenaciously cling to rocks atop sea cliffs, buffeted by strong salty winds, as twisted shrubs less than a meter high. In regions of central and northern Honshū facing the Sea of Japan, a variety called ‘yuki-tsubaki’ or ‘snow camellia’ (Camellia japonica var. rusticana) is widespread. The snow camellia is a true botanical wonder, in that the spreading shrub survives being completely buried by snow 3 to 5 metres deep for up to 6 months every year—thanks to its flexible diagonal trunk that can lie flat beneath the snow cover without breaking, and a special ability to survive the lack of sunlight without shedding its evergreen leaves. The adaptability of camellia explains why they seem to be so tough in our Australian gardens—particularly during droughts and heatwaves—despite its origins in high-rainfall temperate climates.
The Japanese love for the camellia can be traced back to at least the 8th century, when it is mentioned in historical records and features in the poetry of the Japanese classic ‘Man’yōshū’ (‘Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves’). The deep red to pink flowers that slowly begin to unfurl in the freezing winter cold among the sombre dark-coloured leaves, then open up with abandon with arrival of spring warmth, have symbolised the virtue of resilience and beauty in modesty. With the development of the ‘chadō’ (tea ceremony) tradition from the 15th century onward, camellia became popular for floral decoration, striking resonance with the concept of modesty that is central to the Japanese tea tradition.
In Japanese culture, the camellia has also been traditionally valued for the oil that can be pressed from its nut-like seed. Cold-pressed camellia seed oil has long been used for cooking, and is considered a ‘healthy’ oil containing even a higher proportion of the monounsaturated fat oleic acid than olive oil. In former times, camellia seed oil was also used for hair styling and in oil lamps. The very dense and durable camellia timber was highly valued, though the supply has dwindled due to most large trees being felled.
During the Edo period (16th to mid-19th centuries), many varieties of camellia were developed in Japan and cultivated in gardens. The flower also featured richly in paintings, ceramics, music and traditional crafts. In the 17th century, Georg Joseph Kamel (1661–1706)—a Bohemian Jesuit priest and botanist, after whom the plant is named—introduced the camellia to Europe, starting a horticultural craze of sorts that continues to this day.
Behind the beauty, however, the camellia also has a dark side. In some regional folk traditions, old camellia trees are said to turn into ghosts—perhaps because of the pale, gnarled trunk and roots of aged camellia trees appearing ghostly at night. The habit of whole flowers dropping off trees without breaking apart into petals has been compared to heads rolling—it is said that samurais disliked camellias because of this reason. Even if it is not about beheading, the flower carries a connotation of falling—for this reason, the Japanese have traditionally avoided giving camellias to those suffering illness, and race horses are never given a name containing the word ‘camellia’.
The 1960s movie classic ‘Sanjūrō’ by the celebrated Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa is infused with camellia’s symbolism, both good and bad. The main character, Tsubaki Sanjūrō—whose name means ‘Thirty-year old camellia’—is an itinerant samurai who sets out with a group of young samurais to expose corruption in the ruling class. Much blood is spilt (i.e. many heads roll) along the way before Sanjūrō and his gang finally finds justice. The famous end scene depicts Sanjūrō shunning the admiration of his young samurais and setting off again on his never-ending journey. In essence, he encapsulated all the virtues that the camellia flower symbolises.