Back in 1937, when MGM was filming Camille, the gorgeous Greta Garbo walked into a Parisian flower shop to get a nosegay of camellias. Holding the pretty flowers to her nose, she took a glorious sniff. But it was a major faux pas: The popular blossoms of Camelia japonica have no fragrance. If they did, this would surely be the flower for all seasons worldwide, outdistancing even the gardenia and the rose. Regrettably, however, camellias’ fame must rest upon their beauty alone.
This hasn’t really set them back, however; camellias have been popular in the Orient for more than 1,000 years (Japan alone is said to possess well over 1,000 cultivars). The history of the camellia is intertwined with that of tea (Camelia sinensis), a close relative. In the early 1700s, some crafty Europeans, wishing to grow tea on their own turf, bought some plants from the Chinese. But the crafty Chinese, not wishing to spread the wealth around, supplied C. japonica instead. It was hopeless for brewing tea, but the flowers grabbed the European imagination and the search for more camellias began.
By 1739, two flowering camellias — one a single white and the other red — were bought by Lord Petre of Thornden Hall. Within two years, his gardener had produced a hybrid with double red flowers. In the late 1700s, the British East India Company brought more camellias into Europe; by 1815, 12 varieties were growing in England.
The first camellias reached the United States in 1797, arriving at the exotic port of Hoboken, N.J. They soon became star attractions among wealthy greenhouse owners up North and every plantation owner in the South.
In 1847, a beautiful French courtesan named Alphonsine Duplessis died at the age of 27. She’d loved camellias more than anything, and her grieving lovers are said to have blanketed her coffin with a pall of white camellias. Enchanted with the tale, Alexandre Dumas fils wrote La Dame aux Camelias — mistakenly translated into English as Camille. In 1853 the novel became a play, and the rage for camellias swept the Continent. By the end of the 19th century the rage had passed, and when camellias became popular once again, it was for outdoor cultivation.
But forget the French and the English and think Asheville! Except for those flowers burned by frost, camellias have been blooming here since late February. That’s right: Not only will some of the more tender cultivars brighten up WNC winters, the new hardier camellias are ready to thrive in our mountain gardens.
This year, the French Broad River Garden Club’s annual plant sale will feature hardy camellias. On Saturday April 27 from 9-3 (rain or shine), head on over to 1000 Hendersonville Road and you’ll discover a great mix of herbs, native plants, shrubs and perennials, brought to you by some 15 local vendors. This is one of the first welcomes to spring 2002 — don’t miss it!
Peter Loewer also offers gardening tips on Thursday afternoons on WLOS-TV during the 5 p.m. news.