All in the Family—Camellias Included

All in the Family—Camellias Included    By Allen Lacy

 Most of us know camellias on sight. Come meet some less-familiar relatives.



Many gardeners who resist Latin fiercely eventually give in, for the simple reason that common names are so imprecise that we may discover in using them that we don’t know what we’re talking about. Take “buttercup,” for instance, it can refer to dozens upon dozens of plants having nothing in common but the same. (My late sister-in-law, a Tennessean, referred to daffodils as buttercups.) Furthermore, common names seldom translate directly from one language to  another. Take Fuchsia, as a genus name. In German it is Alpenveilchen (Alpine violets), and some claim that the English common name is “sow’s bread.”

Botanists ask more of us, however. In addition to knowing every plant by its binomial name of genus and species, they want us to know the family  names–the names which indicate relationship. But for those who dislike change in matters of science there is some disturbing news. Old, respectable families, like, say, the Caprifoliaceae, have been knocked to smithereens by methods of classification that rely on DNA rather than appearance, on molecules instead of the naked eye.

But there is, as yet anyway, comfort in the fact that some plant families remain intact. One of these is the Tea Family, the Theaceae–a family with some very beautiful members, including several species of Stewartia, some native to North America, others to east Asia. Another genus, Franklinia 

Franklinia alatamaha

(which has but one species), narrowly escaped extinction in the  late 18th century when the legendary “Quaker botanist,” William Bartram of Philadelphia, collected seeds from a few highly endangered plants growing alongside the Alatamaha River between Georgia and South Carolina.

I’m not sure what kind of environmental catastrophe led to the near extinction of the franklinia, but another genus in the Tea Family, the Asian genus Camellia, suffered huge damage in eastern north America just three decades ago. Paradoxically, the death of thousands of camellia plants led to many new cultivars that are able to survive much farther north than previously.
William Ackerman, a plant breeder at the National Arboretum  in Washington tells the story. In 1969 one of the  glories of the arboretum was its collection of some 900 cultivars of both the fall-blooming Camellia sasanqua and the spring-blooming C. japonica. Then, disaster struck, with a series of freezes well below zero F. accompanied by high, drying winds. “By 1980,” Ackerman writes, “the Arboretum’s once outstanding collection had been reduced to a half-dozen  struggling plants and blackened stumps.” But one plant, previously of little interest, had survived unscathed. Grown from a seed of the tea-oil camellia,     C. oleifera, that had been sent years previously by a botanical garden in China, it bloomed in the midst of a virtual camellia cemetery. Distinctive rather than beautiful, with single white petals and a central boss of bright yellow stamens, it obviously bore genes for outstanding resistance to extreme cold. Ackerman set to work crossing it with more delicate camellias, eventually producing a race of super hardy camellias. Meanwhile, at Camellia Forest Nursery in Chapel Hill, another survivor, also C. oleifera, turned up. Eventually named ‘Mason Farm,’

Camellia oleifera ‘Mason Farm’

it also provided cold-hardiness genes that became the basis of  new strains. Today, the result is a remaking of garden camellias that combine great winter hardiness with the sumptuous single or double flowers in a full range of colors from white through pink through blazing red.

The Linwood Arboretum now grows almost a dozen of these new cultivars–including the two that helped transform the garden camellia— ‘Lu Shan Snow’ and  ‘Mason Farm.’