It was through Jem Finch that I’d first heard of camellias: the very flowers that fell mercy to his anger in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, and later been gifted as a sign of forgiveness. Now, I can’t be sure which species of camellia Harper Lee had in mind, but anyhow- I shan’t detract from the point.
Camellia, a genus of 100-300 species and thousands of hybrids, are pretty famous worldwide, not least amongst them Camellia sinensis, the species used to make tea. I chanced upon the Japanese camellia (Camellia japonica) at the Gardens recently, and immediately understood why Harper Lee might have chosen them as one of the most powerful symbols in the book. A popular garden variety, it has serrated, dark green leaves and perfectly round flowers, multiple layers of petals radiating with a very uniform beauty, almost as though it was carved from a piece of jade. Fittingly, it’s the state flower of Alabama, precisely where ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was set.
Native to China, South Korea and Japan, the Japanese camellia is evergreen and grows in forests in the wild, achieving a height of 1.5 to 6m, flowering in January to March and bearing globular fruits in September to October. For its beauty, it’s been widely bred and cultivated in gardens. A wide range of colours exist, usually shades of white to red, and can be either single (5 to 8 petals in one row), semi-double (two or more rows of petals with uninterrupted stamens), double (stamens interrupted by petaloids), formal double (multiple rows of petals, with no visible stamens), elegans (large outer petals surrounding a central mass of intermingled petaloids and stamens), or informal double (a mass of intermingled petals and petaloids).
Camellias tend to prefer shade to partial shade, indicative of their natural forest habitat. They like well-drained soil, with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5, kept evenly moist. Importantly, they should be planted or transplanted in either autumn or winter, and must not be planted too deep, which can impede flowering. In the garden, propagation is most reliably and quickly done via air layering or softwood cuttings. They can be quite susceptible to fungal infections, scale, aphids, mites, and mealybugs.
Besides being merely ornamental, the seeds of the Japanese camellia can be used to make tea oil, alongside that of the Camellia oleifera. Oil from the Japanese camellia is used to clean and protect blades, as well as for skin and hair care in Japan. Don’t think I’d quite appreciate smearing oil all over my hair, but hey, what do I know.