In Bloom: Camellia japonica

Camellia Japonica 'Daikagura'
Camellia Japonica 'Daikagura'

Camellia Japonica 'Daikagura" blooming in the Seattle Japanese Garden

(This article is an update of a blog post originally published on March 19, 2015).

For our hardworking gardeners who toil away in the winter months, the arrival of bright red Camellia japonica blooms signals the countdown to the garden's March opening to the public.

There are more than a dozen varieties of Camellia japonica --with bloom times ranging from late January through early April-- present in our garden: the snow-white 'Lily Pons' which produces large, single to semi-double blooms; the alluring rose-red 'Hikaru Genji' with a peony-form ; and the 'Takayama', with deep pink single-petals and prominent yellow stamens, just to name a few.

While each guide has his or her own very favorite Camellia japonica, one variety that makes almost every guide's Top 3 list is 'Daikagura'.

‘Daikagura’ is an ancient Japanese cultivar of Camellia japonica (the Camellia species most common in American gardens). Registered in 1891, it originated at least a century before that. There are numerous related cultivars, some with names that include the word ‘Daikagura.’ According to Hugh Johnson, writer of a column in The Garden (a Royal Horticulture Society publication), it’s considered by the Japanese to be one of the greatest camellias of all time. This beautiful Camellia has been planted in parks and botanic gardens around the world.

Our Seattle Japanese Garden (SJG) has one plant, next to a large Western Red Cedar. It blooms early, some years beginning in January, and over a long period. The large variegated flowers are bright rose-red, splotched white, but the exact patterning varies from year to year.

Camellia flowers are classified into various forms or styles, such as formal double. ‘Daikagura’ has peony-form flowers, sometimes called informaldoubles. With many petals and petaloids (flower parts that look like narrow, twisted petals), they resemble showy double peonies.

What does the word Daikagura mean? According to Seattle Japanese Garden docent Keiko Page, “the original meaning of Kagura is ‘where gods sit’”. It refers to one type of kagura, a sacred dance performed at Shinto festivals, one of the oldest dances of Japan. The young female dancers are believed to be the descendants of Ame no Uzume, who performed the famous evocative dance to lure the sun goddess Amaterasu in a cave behind a huge rock. Over the centuries, kagura evolved in many different directions, including several kinds of folk kagura that did not involve priests. The traveling performers of Daikagura brought the dance to people who weren’t able to visit the shrines. Ceremonial at first, the performances became a kind of people’s entertainment, which included lion dances, acrobatics, and juggling. See an image of Daikagura performers here.

So why was this particular camellia given the name ‘Daikagura’? The answer may remain a mystery. Page suggests that “maybe we can get the benefit of visiting shrines by looking at these lovely flowers.” Or, we could find in this early bloomer, as the season changes from winter’s austerity to spring’s colorful abundance, the exuberance of daikagura. In the absence of certainty, we should feel free to imagine our own reasons. In so doing, may each of us find our way back to the garden, as it re-opens each year in the spring.

Corinne Kennedy is a trained guide for Seattle Japanese Garden and a contributor to the garden's blog.