The Culture of Camellias

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Island 1: Naming the Exotic

The origins of the name camellia 
Georg Joseph Camel, 1661-1706, 
"Herbarium aliarumque stirpium in insula Luzone Philippinarum," 
appendix in John Ray, 1627-1705, Historia plantarum; species hactenus editas insuper multas noviter inventas & descriptas complectens
London: M. Clark, H. Fairthorne, 1686-1704.

The name camellia honors a pioneer botanist in the Far East, a German Jesuit missionary to the Philippines, Georg Kamel, who died in Manilla in 1706. Kamel went to neither Japan nor China, and he is unlikely to have "discovered" the camellia. He was, however, well-known in Europe for this work on oriental plants, published as an appendix to a leading British botanist's work in 1704. Recent research has shown that the the plant group was probably first reported and described by a German physician Andreas Cleyer, who had twive visited Japan in the 1680s, with a trade mission in 1682-84 and again in 1685-87. The earliest British information on the plant, probably from dried specimens sent back from Amoy in the 1680s by John Cunningham, was by the botanist James Petiver (1663-1718), in a communication in the Transactions of the Royal Society (1702), where he describes it as "Thea chinensis," and in plate XXXIII of his Gazophylacii naturae et artis (1702-1709). Images from several of these camellia pioneers are available through the International Camellia Society's Camellia Treasury.

Kaempfer: the Dutch in the Far East 
Engelbert Kaempfer, 1651-1716, 
"Tab. XXVIII: the Tea," 
from The history of Japan: giving an account of the antient and present state and government of that empire; of its . . . minerals, trees, plants . . . animals . . . and fishes . . . illustrated by many copper plates.Translated by J. C. Sheuhzer. 2 vols. 
London: printed for the publisher, 1728. South Carolina College Library, book 2362.

The fullest early account of the plant we now know as the camellia was given by a Dutchman, Engelbert Kaempfer, who lived in Nagasaki in the early 1690s. Kaempfer's Amoenitates Exoticarum (1712) gave nearly two-and-a-half pages to the plant, under the Japanese names of Tsubakki and sasanqua, with accompanying illustrations. Following Kaempfer's death, his specimens and papers were obtained by the British scientist, Sir Hans Sloane, who arranged for this English translation of Kaempfer's History of Japan; this plate from the History (from the Winyah Indigo Society library, Georgetown, South Carolina) shows the closeness of the camellia to the tea plant.

Edwards: the "Chinese Rose" in Lord Petre's Stove-House 
George Edwards, 1694-1773, 
"Plate 67: The Peacock Pheasant from China [1745]," 
from his A natural history of birds : most of which have not been figur'd or describ'd, and others very little known from obscure or too brief descriptions without figures, or from figures very ill design'd. 
London: Printed for the author, at the College of Physicians in Warwick-Lane, 1743-1751.

This is the first colored engraving of a camellia published in the West, and the first drawn from a living specimen. Edwards's book depicted a series of birds in appropriate settings. The branch on which Edwards has perched this bird is described by him as a "Chinese rose," but is recognizably a Camellia japonica. Edwards's accompanying text here describes the Rose (which "I drew from Nature") and recounts that "this beautiful flowering Tree" had been raised "by the late curious and noble Lord Petre, in his Stoves at Thorndon-Hall in Essex." Harold Hume points out that the branch is "of considerable size," so that, if Edwards were drawing "from life," Lord Petre's camellia must have been growing in England for some years prior to publication of this plate in 1745.

Japanese vs. Linnean nomenclature 
Georg Dionysius Ehtret, 1708-1770, 
"Camellia. Tsabekki [1778]," 
from Christoph Trew, 1695-1769, Hortus nittidissimis, Nuremberg: n.p. [1768-1786].

This plate, based on a watercolor by the German botanical artist Ehret, records a significant transition, using both the original Japanese name tsabekki (or tsubakki), and the new'scientific name camellia. In his great Systema natura (1735), the Swedish botanist Linnaeus had developed the binomial system of genus and species for the naming of plants. As noted above, the genus camellia honors the Jesuit missionary-botanist Georg Kamel (1671-1706), while the species name japonica record the first known origin of the plants. Later, other species (notably sasanqua) would be identified within the genus.

William Curtis's Botanical Magazine, 1788 
"No. 42: Camellia Japonica," 
from William Curtis, The Botanical Magazine; or Flower-Garden Displayed: in which the most ornamental Foreign Plants, cultivated in the open ground, the Green-house, and the Stove, will be accurately represented in their natural colours, volume II. 
London: for W. Curtis, at his Botanic garden, Lambeth-Marsh, 1788.

This is the first detailed handcolored engraving of a single camellia flower. Curtis, a London nursery-man, had recently founded what would become one of the most important botanical and horticultural periodicals of the next fifty years. In his text Curtis notes that "the Camellia is generally treated as a stove plant ," but it seems "one of the properest plants imaginable for the conservatory," and only "the high price at which it has hitherto been sold" has prevented it being "hazarded" as an outdoor plant like the Magnolia.

The Earl Macartney's Embassy to China, 1792-1794 
"Camellia sasanqua," 
from Sir George Staunton, 1737-1801, An authentic account of an embassy from the King of Britain to the Emperor of China, 2 vols., 
London: G. Nicol, 1797.

In 1792-1794 Staunton, a career diplomat and colonial administrator in the Caribbean and later the East India Company, traveled to Peking in a grand entourage as Earl Macartney's secretary, on the first formal embassy from Britain to the Chinese imperial court. In his 1830 list of camellia varieties, Booth refers to Staunton's illustration and identifies it with the variety called "Lady Banks's Camellia," introduced to Britain in 1811 by Captain Welbank of the East India Company.



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