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Branches of Botany: From tea to beautiful blooms, camellias boast a rich history

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                                Camellia japonica thrives in Hawaii and can be propagated from cuttings.


    Camellia japonica thrives in Hawaii and can be propagated from cuttings.

Most of our favorite beverages contain plants in some form — think barley (beer), chocolate, coffee, fruit and vegetable juices, and teas. Humans likely started using plants to flavor water.

There is a Chinese legend that explains the origin of tea. Around 2737-2750 B.C., Emperor Shennong was said to have been boiling some water to drink while relaxing in the shade of a wild tea tree, a member of the genus Camellia. During the process, a few of the tree’s leaves fell into the pot, resulting in a delicious drink. After some experimenting, he found the beverage had medicinal properties.

From this humble tale, tea has blossomed into worldwide phenomenon with a burgeoning list, of 20,000 different types. Many of these are tisanes, or herbal teas.

Cultivars of Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (Chinary teas) and C. sinensis var. assamica (Assamica teas) are used to produce true teas. These two varieties produce material that through various processes become green, yellow, white, oolong, black and pu’er tea. Assamica teas are generally from India, but some are native to China.

These plants are also appreciated for their beauty. Camellias — like other members of the family Theaceae — are known for their showy blossoms.

As early as 900 B.C., religious orders in China developed cultivars of C. reticulata for ceremonial use. The Japanese shared a similar affinity for showy cultivars of C. japonica. Surprisingly, the striking gestalt of this plant, not its use as tea, is what lead to Camellia’s introduction to the Occident. In 1957, Frederick G. Meyer observed camellias in a castle garden in Oporto, Portugal. The castle’s records indicate that these plants had been growing there since 1550 — around the time Portuguese traders contacted Japan. This predates British sea captains’ introduction to tea in China in the mid-1600s.

Currently, there are 187 accepted species of Camellia, only five of these species have cultivars that are used in the ornamental plant trade.

Growing at home

In Hawaii, cultivars of C. japonica, C. reticulata and C. sasanqua do the best. C. lutchuensis also thrives here. While the flowers are not as showy, their fragrance makes up for it.

Optimal growing temperatures for these plants range from 38 to 80 degrees. Camellias require acidic, well-drained soil. They also require protection from intense sun and strong winds. Full sun may cause the dark green foliage to turn yellow and thicken. They would benefit from the protection of tree. Lagerstroemia, covered in a previous article, would be a great choice. The reddish foliage of this tree that appears in spring would complement the camellia’s blossoms. The flowers appear at nodes between the terminal leaves. To maximize flower size, allow only one flower per node. If you do not have a yard, camellias can flourish in pots.

Camellias can be difficult to acquire in the islands as only their seeds are legal to import. Propagation from cuttings is possible, and they also lend themselves well to grafting. While species cultivated for ornamental purposes have not been evaluated by the Hawaii Pacific Weed Risk Assessment, C. sinensis has a score of -4, meaning it is low risk and not currently recognized as invasive in Hawaii.

Jesse Adams is a botanist at the Harold L. Lyon Arboretum, where he works to catalogue, propagate and conserve the plant diversity found there.

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