An evergreen shrub or small tree 30 to 40 ft high, of much-branched habit. Leaves deep glossy green, ovate or oval, 3 to 4 in. long, tapering to a short point, shallow toothed, quite glabrous, specked with black or brown dots on the lower surface, and of firm, leathery texture. Flowers red, solitary at the end of the branchlets, stalkless, 21⁄2 to 4 in. across; petals normally five, but usually more in cultivated plants. Stamens numerous, united for a half to two-thirds of their length into a fleshy cup. Seeds 3⁄4 to 1 in. long, half as wide; often flattened on several sides through compression.
Few exotic shrubs have filled a more important place in our greenhouses than the common camellia has in its time, but its merits as a hardy plant were not fully appreciated until this century. Whilst it is not adapted for exposed, windy positions, it is perfectly hardy near London in places where there is moderate shelter from north and east. At Kew it has withstood 31 degrees of frost without suffering in the least. It is, indeed, one of the most satisfactory of hardy evergreens, there being no other except, perhaps, the laurels with quite the same lustrous black-green hue. This camellia is a native of Japan, the Korean Archipelago, and the Liu Kiu Islands. It is not found wild in China but has long been cultivated there as a garden plant. The oil expressed from the seeds is used by the Japanese women for dressing the hair.
The species first became known in Europe about the beginning of the eighteenth century, and many fine varieties were imported from China; in the half-century or so after the end of the Napoleonic wars many hundreds more were raised in Europe, first in England and later on the continent. As is generally known, these have flowers pure white, of various shades of red, deep scarlet, striped, and of various degrees of ‘doubleness’. About the middle of the nineteenth century the camellia had become perhaps the most popular of greenhouse flowers; its prim stiffness and solidity was not an inappropriate floral emblem of that period. But as the nineteenth century neared its close the popularity of the camellia declined. Its renaissance, now as an outdoor shrub, began in the period between the two world wars. The very hard winter of 1928-9 was, perhaps, the turning point, for it proved that the garden varieties of the common camellia are not only hardy, but among the hardiest of all evergreens. ‘Their chief defect is the susceptibility of the flowers to injury by spring frost. A few degrees below freezing-point will discolour the petals so much that the blossom is robbed of all beauty. This undoubtedly detracts from the value of the Camellia in the open air. The best place of all for it is, no doubt, in thin woodland, where the trees are not so close together that their roots monopolise the ground entirely, yet whose branches are capable of providing shade and a certain amount of shelter. A canopy of even leafless branches will often mitigate the effect of short snaps of late frost and the evil effects of thawing by bright, early morning sunshine.
‘For ordinary gardens, places that are sheltered on the east by either walls, trees or tall shrubs should, if possible, be chosen for Camellias. There at any rate they are protected from early morning sunshine. In spite of their capability of withstanding great cold they are not adapted for bleak, open, wind-swept sites. If no other place is available for them, they should be treated as wall plants, and, if given a western or north-western exposure, the chances of the flowers developing their full beauty are all the more favourable.
In the open air Camellia japonica flowers from early to late spring and the best forms for out-of-doors are the semi-double and single red-flowered ones, which appear to open better than the very double ones, and to suffer less from late spring frosts. But any variety that has become too large for the greenhouse should be tried in the open air, for the sake of its foliage, if its flowers fail. It should be remembered that plants turned out of pots or tubs in which the roots have become matted require careful watering until the roots have spread into the surrounding ground. The single-flowered varieties may be propagated by cuttings made from firm wood about the end of June and placed in heat. It is best to treat them at first as cool greenhouse plants, as they grow more quickly. The fine double varieties are usually grafted on the cuttings of the single ones. For further information on the propagation of camellias the reader is referred to the article by P. Wiseman in The Rhododendron and Camellia Year Book for 1964, and by F. P. Knight, op. cit., 1956.
It would be impossible in a general work such as this to do even the scantiest justice to the numerous garden varieties of C. japonica now available in commerce. For the British gardener the best guide is the review by Charles Puddle and the late Francis Hanger published in The Rhododendron and Camellia Year Book for 1960 and 1961.
subsp. rusticana (Honda) Kitamura C. rusticana Honda Snow Camellia. – This subspecies grows in the mountains of the north-western part of the main island of Japan (Honshu) – a region of long and snowy but not unduly harsh winters. Its southern limit is believed to lie around 30° N., while typical C. japonica is mostly found south of that line and never far above sea-level. In their more extreme forms the two races overlap, but generally subsp. rusticana can be distinguished by the following characters: petioles usually downy when young; involucre shorter (rarely as long as 4⁄5 in., which is the lower limit in C. japonica); petals widely spread and adnate to the filaments of the outer stamens for only 1⁄5 to 2⁄5 in. approximately (2⁄5 to 3⁄5 in. in C. japonica); filaments of stamens yellow, united only near their base (white or cream and high united into a tube in C. japonica). For further information see The Rhododendron and Camellia Year Book, 1956, pp. 84-9, and 1959, pp. 115-17.
C. hongkongensis Seem. – This species is definitely a greenhouse plant in this country. It is distinguished from C. japonica by its oblong, widely and minutely toothed leaves, persistent flower-bud scales, and hairy ovary. Indigenous in Hong Kong.