Japanese Camellias: Exceptional Flowers in Late Winter & Spring

 Late-winter-blooming Camellia japonica ‘Lily Pons’ brightens up the garden. Photo: Aleks Monk.

Late-winter-blooming Camellia japonica ‘Lily Pons’ brightens up the garden. Photo: Aleks Monk.

By Corinne Kennedy

The Japanese Camellia (Camellia japonica, known as tsubaki in Japan) is more well-known and has larger, showier flowers than the earlier-blooming Camellia sasanqua, which was featured previously (October 2016) in this blog.  Our Seattle Japanese Garden contains many cultivars (cultivated varieties) of this beloved evergreen tree, which is also known as Common Camellia.  Although various camellia species have been grown for thousands of years (for their oil or for making tea), Japanese Camellia has been grown and hybridized as an ornamental – primarily for the beauty of its flowers.  More than 20,000 cultivars have been developed in Japan and throughout the world.

Camellia japonica is native to the milder areas of Japan, China, Taiwan and Korea.  In Japan, it’s most often found in mountain forests and thickets.  The wild form is variable, but generally it’s a small tree growing to about 30 feet tall, with a somewhat thin, uneven appearance.  The bark is smooth and gray, and the evergreen leaves are oval and glossy, with finely-toothed margins.  Flowers are typically red (occasionally pink or white) and single in form, with five to six petals.  In their center is a broad mass of golden stamens.  The fruit capsules are rounded and green, becoming purplish-red and woody when ripe.

Japanese Camellia has flowers of good substance -- a major factor in the breeding of so many cultivars.  Most bloom in late winter or spring, rather than fall or early winter.  Their flowers are larger and showier than those of Sasanqua Camellias, but are not usually fragrant.  Breeders’ goals have included intricate flower forms with many petals, and unusual color variegations (multiple colors and patterns).  These forms include the following:  single, semi-double, anemone, peony, rose-form double, and formal double.  In Japan, however, the simpler “wild” form is also highly valued, and has been planted in public as well as private spaces.

The substantial flowers of “japonicas” drop off whole, rather than as single petals, often completely covering the ground.  This beautiful sight is known as ochitsubaki, and has long been celebrated in haiku poetry.  In general, breeders consider the shedding of whole flowers to be an asset -- flowers are long-lived on the plant and in the vase.  Historically, however, the samurai viewed this characteristic as unlucky, and didn’t permit tsubaki to be planted at their homes.  Samurai were commonly required to behead outlaws, and tsubaki’s fallen flowers seemed to resemble the falling heads.

In general, Camellia japonica cultivars are stockier and less graceful than those of C. sasanqua. Upright and broad, though some are columnar, they tend to be taller at maturity than “sasanquas.”  Their foliage is usually larger, broader and more “leathery” in substance.  Usually considered shrubs, with time many “japonica” cultivars become small trees.  Hardy to about 5 degrees F. (U.S.D.A. Zone 7), they nevertheless need careful siting:  they prefer shade during the hottest part of the day, and moist, well-drained, humus-rich, acid to neutral soil.  Shallow-rooted, they’re sensitive to drought as well as strong winds, and need protection from the root competition of nearby plants – groundcovers as well as trees and shrubs.  They take well to pruning – any time after flowering and before fall – and thus can be trained in a variety of forms, or pruned to control their size.

In Japan, “japonicas” are important evergreen elements in traditional Japanese gardens, and are also used in parks as a shade trees and in hedges.   Cut stems with their flowers are used in the traditional art of ikebana

Camellia japonica was brought to the West in the early 1700s, and soon became popular in Great Britain and Europe.  It was introduced into the United States later in that century, and into Australia and New Zealand in the 19th century.  The botanical name Camellia derives from that of a Jesuit missionary, Georg Joseph Kamel, whose description and drawings of a Camellia species native to the Philippines were published in 1704.

 A profusion of Japanese Camellias greet visitors in early March, when the garden reopens to the public. Photo: Aleks Monk.

A profusion of Japanese Camellias greet visitors in early March, when the garden reopens to the public. Photo: Aleks Monk.

Camellia japonica was brought to the West in the early 1700s, and soon became popular in Great Britain and Europe.  It was introduced into the United States later in that century, and into Australia and New Zealand in the 19th century.  The botanical name Camellia derives from that of a Jesuit missionary, Georg Joseph Kamel, whose description and drawings of a Camellia species native to the Philippines were published in 1704.

 

More than 20 Japanese Camellias grace our garden, with some beginning to bloom in late winter and others in early spring.  One of the earliest is ‘Daikagura’, which was featured here in March 2015 & February 2016 blog articles.  Less colorful, but usually early-blooming, are the cultivars ‘Lily Pons’ and ‘Purity.’

‘Lily Pons’ has pure white, long and narrow petals, cupped almost like spoons.  The long stamens have yellow anthers and white filaments, tinged greenish.  Foliage is dark green and glossy.  Young plants have an open and twiggy habit, but mature as a denser plant.  Considered a medium to late bloomer, it’s sometimes bloomed in our garden as early as February.  It originated in Oregon in 1955, and was received by our Washington Park Arboretum in 1958 and planted in the Seattle Japanese Garden.
 

‘Purity’ is a very old cultivar that dates to late-1600s Japan, where it was known as ‘Shiragiku’ – that is, “white chrysanthemum.”  Like many Japanese hybrids, it accumulated additional names after being introduced to the West.  These include ‘Harriet I. Laub’, ‘Neige Doree’, ‘Purity’ and ‘Refinement’.  The medium-sized fluted, formal double flowers (sometimes called “rose-form”) are pure white, shading to cream at their base.  Camellia authority Stirling Macoboy has noted that they look like gardenias, but without the fragrance.  He also prefers the French name (‘Neige Doree’, which means “gilded snow”), finding it more pleasing and evocative than the others.  ‘Purity’ was received by the Washington Park Arboretum in 1956, and moved to our Japanese Garden in 1961.  It usually blooms in March and April.

Corrinne Kennedy is a Garden Guide and a frequent contributor to the Seattle Japanese Garden blog.