Thoughts brought on by a visit to London’s exquisite Chiswick House:
We were here to see the camellias, much vaunted in the press, and, well, of much interest. Basically a Chinese enthusiasm stretching back century after century, they were discovered by European gardeners in the 18th century, and living plants began to reach the West late in the century, and early in the 19th. The plants were misunderstood. In China, they were essentially florists flowers, nurtured in pots, and brought into houses and courtyards at their fullest beauty, admired, then grown on elsewhere until the following season.
At first hugely expensive in Europe, they were also thought not to be hardy. Grand camellia houses were built or old-fashioned orangeries were adapted to keep them from the cold. Chiswick got a purpose built camellia house in the 1820’s, got stocked up with lovely things, and, amazingly, some of the original plants still survive.However, gardeners here soon realised that the plants were cold tolerant, and therefore began to grow them outdoors as part of the shrubbery. But the Chinese gardeners knew a thing or two… However tough the plants, the flowers themselves are not especially cold tolerant, and both open flowers and buds get damaged by frost. Many sorts, being very double, soon get soggy and rot after rain. Strong sunlight burns the petals. The flowers don’t easily drop once they are finished, hanging on the bushes in brown dereliction unless encouraged to fall. The bushes are densely foliaged, and the leaves, polished and darkest green, show no form or variation of tone: in the open garden, big bushes make solid dark objects, dotted with splodges of white, or pinks, cerises, scarlets (or brown). Perhaps ancient gardeners get too critical; as a very young person I visited the huge camellia plantings at the Villa Carlotta on Lake Como in northern Italy, and didn’t see any disadvantages, just finding the flowers to be totally, ravishingly, lovely.
The ones under glass at Chiswick, being such early introductions, are of historical importance. So much so that they were rescued and rehabilitated by the International Camellia Society. Most had lost their names, and the oldest, ‘Middlemist’s Red’, named after the nurseryman who first marketed it, would in any case have had a Chinese name in China, and perhaps a very ancient history too. However, the loveliest are now given, presumably by the ICS, rather generic Latin variety names, along the lines of ‘Elegans’ or ‘Imbricata’.
More enticingly, the Chiswick plants are being propagated. This is both brilliant and alarming. Brilliant because the gardener can buy, and grow, a lovely piece of garden history. Alarming because both camellia ‘Elegans’ and ‘Imbricata’ are so appallingly beautiful that I must have them! Better still, potted and shifted indoors for flowering, another of their qualities can be captured, for some are also fragrant.