Camellias, a very British love affair

camellia pompone

Camellias are of course not native to England but the plant has become so firmly embodied in British culture it might as well be our National flower. You probably have it every single day, a cup for breakfast at the very least. Camellia is of course the source of your very British cup of Tea!

We as a nation have been obsessed by tea since its arrival in the 17th century, oddly coffee up until then was more popular but coffee shops were seen as hotspots for political sedition! King Charles II became worried that the intellectuals at the time were becoming too ‘woke’ and banned the sale of coffee in 1675.

But back to camellias!

A bit of history…

The first Camellias were grown in the gardens of renowned horticulturist Robert James, Lord Petre, at Thorndon Hall, Essex in 1739. In his short but furiously passionate life he strived to push the boundaries of horticulture and our understanding of plant husbandry far further than most of his peers. Gaining himself and his gardens a reputation for excellence that would take another 2 centuries to be rivalled. Sadly his life was cut short at just 29 from smallpox, the gardens he had planted, the glasshouses which at the time were state of the art fell quickly into disrepair and were lost within just 20 years following his death. Fellow botanists commemorated his memory by naming a genus after him, Petrea, a species of beautiful flowering vine native to south America.

His gardener James Gordon was also incredibly well respected in his own right, he is attributed with the introduction of the American elm, Ulmus americana, in 1752. After the death of Lord Petre he went on to start a successful nursery and then a seed company. He was responsible for introducing the first Camellias for sale in England from his nursery in Mile End.


From this point on Camellias became the ‘must have’ plants for the well to do, different varieties being imported and bred, although the breeders had to be patient as it could take 10 years from seed to flower. They believed they needed careful protection from frosts and the bitter cold and as such were only for those that could provide sheltered conservatories in which to keep their precious plants. They also needed acid soil and partial shade, for all these reasons they were not something that the Hoi Polloi could hope to grow and made them a signifier of wealth and the expertise of the owner to show off to their friends.

There are very few surviving collections from this era, given that the craze for Orchids which started in the late 1800’s ousted most of the collections from their pride of place. The subsequent wars that followed in the early part of the 20th Century then took most of the skilled horticulturists away from their gardens, sadly most never returned. However there are a few collections that did survive!

One of the oldest and most impressive glasshouse Camellia collections in the UK is open to the public at Chiswick House. The Duke of Devonshire built a 300 ft glasshouse specifically to house his collection. He, with his gardener William Lindsay, acquired plants from the famous but now lost nursery Alfred Chandler in Vauxhall.

The history of the Chiswick glasshouses is fascinating, literally a living history, and also an incredibly important collection in historical terms. At least 9 of the trees housed within it date back to the original 1828 purchases! One very important tree ‘Middlemist’s Red’ brought from China in 1804 by the Shepherds Bush/ Vauxhall nurseryman John Middlemist is one of only two known surviving trees in the world!

middlemist red
‘Middlemist red’ One of the only 2 known surviving examples in the world!

If you would like to visit yourself and see this gloriously restored living history all the details can be found here, Chiswick House Camellia Show

Other gardens of note

Mount Edgcumbe Country Park and Gardens – Over a 1000 varieties, the National Camellia Collection.

Lost Gardens of Heligan – Unusual veteran Camellias

Hole Park Gardens, Kent – Woodlands planted up in the 1930’s full of large specimen trees and Camellias. Well worth visiting in spring

C. sasanqua

Choosing your Camellia – flowering times

The breeding and subsequent hybridising of C. japonica, C. sasanqua and C. reticulata have resulted in a myriad of forms and colours unrivalled by many plants. One way to choosing your preferred variety, as it is rare most people have room for more than one, would be first to decide on its position. If you have naturally acidic soil you could happily plant it in the garden but for those that have highly alkaline soil your best choice would be a smaller variety in a pot. The advantage of a pot could be that you could provide a sheltered position up against your house wall that would allow for an earlier flowering variety. Planting in deep shade will cut back on how floriferous your Camellia is, they will tolerate shade but prefer a bit of sun. Flowering times can vary greatly, C. sasanqua is known as the autumn flowering Camellia and often causes newby gardeners much confusion. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen someone panicking about global warming as their sasquana puts on a beautiful show. The later flowering varieties can carry on right up until May. If you had room you could potentially have a Camellia in flower for almost 6 months of a year! However most commonly available types confine their flowering period from Feb to late April.

Flower shapes

single (flat, bowl- or cup-shaped)

Possibly ‘White Swan’ Single

semi-double (rows of large outer petals, with the centre comprising mixed petals and stamens)

Possibly ‘White Empress’ Semi double


Possibly ‘Tomorrows Dawn’ Double

paeony form (convex mass of irregular petals and petaloids with hidden stamens)

peony form
possibly ‘Gwenyth Morey’ Paeony

anemone form (one or more rows of outer petals, with mixed petaloids and stamens in the centre)

‘Elegans’ Anemone

formal double (rows of overlapping petals with hidden stamens)

‘incarnata’  Formal

Once you have made those choices and have visited a few gardens, peered over peoples walls, trawled through various nursery catalogues then you will be ready to choose your camellia!

I have incidentally done just this, I have a penchant for the formal forms and oddly for me the pale pinks are particularly delectable! So my latest addition to join my 2 new magnolias is…


There are definitely some benefits to gardening on a clay soil!

A mid season flowerer (March to April) and fairly vigorous I can look forward to many years of joy from this wonderful shrub and not just that, being evergreen it should provide a good understory plant to slow the wind on my somewhat exposed plot.

Let me know of any wonderful gardens with Camellias that I might not know about please!

4 Replies to “Camellias, a very British love affair”

  1. There are lots of good camellia collections in Cornwall, notably Anthony House, Trewithen, Tregrehan, Tregothnan. Mount Edgcumbe has the most varieties, around 1000, starting in October and going on until June. I volunteer there one day a week, working on the collection, it’s a joy.

    Liked by 1 person

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