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The Cult of the Wild Camellia


The Cult of the Wild Camellia

February 5, 2014

As a native of Cape Cod, where plants have to scratch a weathered existence out of sandy soil and salt-spray air, I’ve always had a soft spot for wilder plants. This may be one of the reasons I never related to the prolific camellias I discovered when I moved to the Pacific Northwest. Too often over-pruned into a dense ball of overly perfect blooms, camellias to me (I hate to admit) seemed almost gaudy. I held this opinion until an eye-opening encounter two weeks ago at the Lyman Estate Greenhouses in Waltham, MA. Pruned only to enhance their health and natural form, here are camellias as they were meant to be seen.

At the Lyman Camellia House–which is at the height of its Camellia Blooming Season–the unobscured architecture of the plants more closely resembles that of camellias’ native cousins in the altitudes of Asia. Here the more lanky branches, twisted trunks, and boisterous blooms perform a wabi-sabi duet, conjuring images of Chinese paintings with graceful bows against misty mountains. And here one could see why the expressive form and exquisite flowers were a favorite of Japanese ikebana masters. And that precious bloom? Precariously perched on the end of a lithe stem, instead of appearing ostentatious, it now feels like a gift.

Photographs by Justine Hand.

Above: With some plants, including this hot pink specimen, that date back more than 100 years, the Lyman Estate Camellia House offers a unique chance to view rare varieties.

Above: Soon after camellias were introduced to the United States in the late 18th century, Boston became a lively center for camellia culture, with many local families cultivating them on their private estates. Built in 1820, the Lyman Camellia House holds one of the few collections still in existence today.

For those who want to learn more about the history of camellias in Boston, Lyman Estate Greenhouse manager, Lynn Ackerman, will be speaking from 1:30 to 2 p.m on Sunday, February 16. The talks is free to Historic New England members; $5 for nonmembers.

Above: Smiling down at me from its 10-foot height, the pink, peony petals of a Debutante (Camellia japonica ‘Debutante’) are among the many varieties currently in bloom at Lyman.

Above: There are anywhere from 100 to 250 varieties of camellias worldwide, with petal structures that range from the dense peony form on this Camellia japonica ‘Edelweiss’ to the more understated single form below.

Above: Visitors to the Lyman Camellia House can purchase rare older specimens, including the hot pink R.L. Wheeler (similar to this old variety); the scarlet Glen 40; Victory White, and soft pink April Dawn.

Above: A new Japanese hybrid, Spring Awakening produces smaller rose form blooms in graceful little clusters.

Above: Variegated Peppermint Camellias like this one are available for purchase at Aaron’s Farm; $49.95 for a 3-gallon pot.

Above: The white bloom of Camellia japonica “Magnoliaflora” boasts a lush anenome petal form.

Above: This older red variety is a perfect example of the plant’s natural ikebana form.

Above: Camellias like the temperate climate found in the mountains of their native Asia, where temperatures range between 40 and 80 degrees. In the US, they do well outdoors in Zones 7-9, though some are bred up to Zone 6. For those who live in more extreme climates, camellias can be grown inside–the Victorians used to place them in drafty windows–or in a cold greenhouse. They prefer moist, acidic soil and filtered light.

Above: The camellias now in bloom at Lyman, like this Kumsaka, are of the Camellia japonica species. Another species, the Camellia sasanqua, blooms in fall.

Above: A red Chandleri looks striking against the old brick.

Above: A single bloom in petal pink greets visitors.

The Lyman Estate Camellia Blooming Season runs through March 12; Wednesday–Sunday, or by appointment. Admission is free; guided tours are available by appointment from Monday to Friday for $6.

A map of the greenhouse location:

N.B. Among the oldest in the US, the rest of the Lyman Estate Greenhouses are also not to be missed. See more, including the Citrus and Grape Houses as well as the “Peach Wall” at Living History: One of America’s Oldest Greenhouses.

Finally, get more ideas on how to successfully plant, grow, and care for camellia with our Camellia: A Field Guide.

Interested in other types of trees? Get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various trees (specimen, deciduous, evergreen) with our Trees: A Field Guide.

Finally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various shrubs and hedges with our Shrubs: A Field Guide.

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