Camellia - “Queen of Winter Flowers”

For over 60 years, garden enthusiasts in Virginia have celebrated the Camellia. There are gardens across the state that have recognized this historical plant’s collections and celebrated its winter blooms.  I enjoy capturing the colorful blooms each spring in the gardens here in Washington, DC. The plant thrives from Florida all the way up the east coast to Massachuttes. While it prefers warm, humid summers and dry winters, gardeners in the Northeast have found ways to keep the plant thriving even during the cold of winter. What makes this fall through spring-blooming evergreen so popular?

The story of camellias started around 2737 BC with an exciting account. While the servant of the Chinese emperor Shen Nung was boiling water to drink, leaves blew in from a tree overhead. An herbalist, Shen Nung, took a chance and sampled the infusion. What he experienced was the first recorded caffeine buzz in human history. In 1808 the plant made its way to Brazil during the reign of John VI; there was a special incentive towards the tillage of Camellia sinensis, from which the black tea is produced. To acquire the necessary knowledge on tea cultivation, the prince regent brought Chinese experts to Brazil since they had a millennial understanding of the cultivation and the processing of the product. The Botanical Garden in Rio De Janerio was the chosen place for the tea plantation and gardens necessary to cultivate the leaves. 

In the early 1800’s it was also introduced to the English wealthy who could keep the plants in conservatories. That is where they got the name ” Queen of Winter Flowers.” They were the epitome of Victorian beauty. Both Victorian and Asian artwork from the 18th century have Camellias depicted on them. The plants were exported to Boston, where they grew in popularity. The Massachutues Camellia Society is celebrating its 176 years!  The plants made their way south, where they have flourished and are a common garden plant. Visitors flock to South Carolina and Florida in early February and March to see these beautiful early blooms. 

The Camillia is so well-loved due to the ability to withstand the cold of winter, their leathery evergreen leaves,  and many bloom varieties that showcase blooms from fall to spring. The blooms are so soft and spring-like even on the coldest of days. What more could any gardener ask for? 

In the DC area, we have many varieties of Camellia, and you can find some blooming from late fall until spring. My favorites are huge, old-growth Camellias found at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria. They have several varieties to choose from,  like Camellia Janjiro, a native to Japan. The Camellia,  Professor Charles St Sargent displays magnificent, showy, brilliant dark red double blooms. Another variety that I love is the Bernice Boddy Camellia. This one originated at Rancho del Descanso in Sierra Madre, CA, circa 1947.  It was named after the wife of the Los Angeles Daily News publisher, Manchester Boddy. The blooms are white, shading to light pink with deeper pink under petals.  

As you are outside this spring take some time to look for these beautiful flowers.  Often you will have to seek them out as they are tucked away in the wooded or shaded areas of the garden. Their fragrant smells are loved by bees as much as gardeners! 


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