A summary of camellia conservation around the world

Jennifer Trehane[1]

Church Cottage. 353, Hampreston. Wimborne. Dorset. BH21 7LX. UK
[1] E-mail: jennifer@trehane.co.uk

We live in a world where “the past” is becoming more important in our thoughts and indeed in our actions. “Conservation” is a big topic throughout all countries where it is deemed that there is something worth conserving/preserving. The genus Camellia has its place in this movement. We also have a long history of cultivation and some venerable antique camellias, over 100 years old, to preserve, plus some increasingly valued, more recently bred, early-mid 20th century camellias.

The ICS Historic Camellias Group was formed in order to assess the situation and to instigate action where needed. Work is already being carried out in several countries.

What should be conserved ?  Why, how and where ?

1. Camellia species. Wild colonies.

George Orel tells us of his opinions about some species of the subtropical rainforests in Viet Nam and China, some of which are, he believes, yet to be discovered.  Do they matter, are they of any present or future benefit to us or any other animals, as genetic material for future scientific studies, potential garden plants or sources of food or medicine for humans or as part of the food chain in their habitat.? Who knows what the future holds? Should we make efforts now to conserve them?

C. granthamiana: this was a most dramatic conservation project as just one plant was found growing, and named after the Governor of nearby Hong Kong. Documents  tell of its discovery, identification, propagation and distribution before that single plant died. Its descendants are now valued as garden plants in warm climates.

C. nitidissima (C. chrysantha) in bamboo forest near Nanning, Guangxi, ChinaThe first yellow flowered species C. nitidissima, originally named C. chrysantha, was discovered growing in sub-tropical forests in South East China in the late 1940’s and, as more and more yellow flowered species were discovered, the range of possibilities for their use, both as cultivated plants in their own right and, more importantly, as parents for hybridisation with other species caused great excitement. At last, we could expect to have reasonably hardy yellow flowered hybrid camellias in our gardens!

Yellow hybrid - JapanAlas, despite many thousand hybrids being produced, that gaol has yet to be fully achieved. Nearly, but not quite. But - tea made from the young shoots has been successfully marketed and provides a niche industry.

Wild populations are acknowledged and the living gene bank of yellow species in Nanning is now well established. This group of camellias is safely conserved and provides propagation material of known provenance for those who require it.

 Camellia azaleaC. azalea (syn.C.changii) caused great excitement when it was discovered in 1987. Prof. Gao Jiyin and his team’s efforts to use it as a parent to produce hybrids that will give blooms in our gardens during the summer months are now, more than 20 years after its discovery, being launched. Its value is acknowledged, the small area of natural habitat safely preserved and plants propagated from it are now widely circulated.

Other, more established species:

Wild camellias regeneratingIn 1994 I travelled through Yunnan and parts of Sichuan with other camellia enthusiasts, escorted by Mme Xia Lifiang, Guan Kaiyun and others from the Kunming Institute of Botany, specifically to see camellia species growing in their natural habitat. Over many years, deforestation mainly by those seeking firewood for cooking, had removed shade trees as well as causing severe damage to the shrub layer, including camellias.

This had been halted, conservation measures were in place and in most places pines and other native trees were growing strongly. The under-storey, including the camellias had re-grown from stumps or developed from seedlings and, with increasing shade, were beginning to lose their yellow, sun scorched appearance and starting to look healthy.

man with firewoodLocal people can no longer use them as firewood but the annual camellia festivals in some areas have resulted in mass gathering of branches which is more difficult to stop.

Species included C. reticulata, C. saluenensis, C. pitardii var. pitardii, C. pitardii var. yunnanica. C. yunnnanensis, C.oleifera are already appreciated, in wide circulation, and now safely conserved in their native habitats, where they are particularly valued in research projects by taxonomists.

The International Species Collections in Jinhua and Kunming Botanical Garden provide vital gene banks of the majority of species collected from wild sources, and ensure their survival.

Antique “species” camellias, in controlled environments:

These include examples of ancient wild species such as the formerly wild trees of C. reticulata seen in Yunnan and Sichuan some of which have been estimated as over 600 years old. A great deal of work has been done to identify, record and conserve these specimens and populations.

C. pitardii var pitardiiC. saluenensis






C. pitardii var yunnanicaC. reticulata








Also included are populations of ancient wild C. japonica, and its forms, particularly in the coastal regions and islands of China and Korea, and in many areas of Japan. (Molecular analysis of “Sichuan camellia” has not yet been carried out in order to clarify its classification but it is being very effectively conserved).

Wild C. japonica on Oshima Island, JapanThe camellia oil industry, especially on the Goto and Oshima islands of Japan, is a very significant contributor to the conservation of these camellias.

These formerly wild specimens and populations are now identified, and valued and some individuals are managed as tourist attractions. Larger populations are valued, used and in some cases actively managed, as oil producing trees, especially in Japan. which also helps their conservation.

2. Named Cultivars.

Antique camellias- Asian region. Camellias 100 years old or more.

The truly ancient cultivars are, as might be expected, those in Japan and in China, where selection from the wild, cultivation and breeding began over 1,000 years ago, mostly associated with the Buddhist and Daoist temples.  Identification and recording of most of the surviving ancient trees, a few of which are over 600 years old, is well under control as is their management. The majority are growing in townships, in the grounds of temples or public places so they become valued local attractions.

Camellia in temple courtyard on Putou island. China

Jikko at Reikanji temple with roots and trunk protected

 In Japan they are designated “Natural Monuments”. Competition from humans can be a problem but those with properties containing these veterans are generally proud of them and they are well cared for, especially where cold winter weather is expected.

Most are found close to buildings where there is some protection from severe weather but additional measures are often taken. Most trees have a natural lifespan and deteriorate as they age so those who have the responsibility for maintaining these ancient camellias have a very difficult task. A combination of props and pruning is used.

A well cared for ancient camellia extremely close to a house

Graft union.jpg
C. reticulata ‘Tongzimian’

When I visited Zixi Shan in 1993, there was a large old tree of ‘Tongzimian’ (‘Baby Face’) and ‘Zixi’ . Apart from the sheer size of this tree and its two varieties, there was a bulge near the base of the tree. Was this the result of a graft union that had taken place all those years ago ? Sadly the tree is now dead, killed by over-zealous care, however we can still see old trees of ‘Baby Face’ near other temples on Zixi Shan. She is still smiling !

Antique camellias. Europe, Australia, New Zealand and America.

In Europe, named camellias are recorded to have first arrived from China and Japan in the late 18th century, then, as their popularity increased and new varieties were bred these spread to America, Australia and New Zealand.

Relatively few are accurately identified, as documentation relating to their acquisition and planting is sparse. There is much confusion partly due to movement of plants from one part of Europe to another. Most had their original Japanese or Chinese names changed to stylised Latin, or overtly European in honour of some person involved with the family of the new owner and some individuals soon acquired a variety of names . As thousands of new varieties were bred and introduced in the 19th century more confusion followed as they were dispersed and often re-named.

‘Hagoromo’/’Magnoliiflora’‘Masayoshi’/ ‘Doncklaeri’







There are specimens of some of these ancient camellias in Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Germany, Italy, France, some of the Baltic countries, and the UK. Others arrived in Australia, New Zealand and the USA. Now we wish to identify them in order to conserve them. It is a difficult and time consuming task; a major detective story on a global scale.

Labels were lost and, as so often happens after a period of great popularity, camellias lost favour in the first half of the 20th century. Garden staff went off to war and many gardens became neglected or even abandoned. Planting records were lost or destroyed.

Occasionally there are lucky finds. Lead labels were popular and are sometimes found, still legible, deep in the leaf litter under old camellias. Records are also found in the libraries of some of the old properties to which the gardens or camellia houses are attached.

Chiswick house.jpg Chiswick House_inside.jpg


When available we use old nursery catalogues and paintings by artists of the time as well as the famous books by Verschaffelt, Berlese, Chandler & Booth or the excellent facsimiles produced by Kishikawa. The paintings are often stylised and can lead to inaccuracies unless supported by more “hard” evidence.

It takes many hours, sometimes years to have confidence that the name finally put on a label is probably accurate, using these methods and materials.

Until recently, unlike the work done on Camellia species, it is just the flowers of cultivars that have been studied; little attention has been paid to leaves, habit etc. This must be changed. It is, however, generally agreed that we need more than morphological evidence to identify old camellias and I believe our friends in Galicia, Spain have a very important contribution to make.

 Historic Camellias.

In the USA work is being done to identify and conserve “Historic Camellias”; those bred in the early-mid 20th century. There is concern that with so many varieties bred in this period and collected in gardens, a large number are found to be unlabelled and may be lost as more and more land is being sold for housing and other development. Work has started to try to identify them by morphological methods, using documents and historic books and pictures. Some are being propagated ahead of firm identification, and living collections are planned.

Proposal.  Identification methods should use defined stages.

Stage 1. Examine historical evidence in the form of documents, including planting lists, nursery catalogues, old paintings etc.

Stage 2.  Morphological study. A system of key steps, should be devised to aid future identification by morphological methods in a more systematic way. These steps should include digital photographs of flowers, flower parts, leaves, habit, and any other part of the plant that may be relevant as a characteristic for future identification. If accepted, the key should be available for use around the world as an “Approved ICS system for morphological identification of camellia cultivars”.

Stage 3. Having made a preliminary identification the next step is confirmation/negation by a recognised molecular analytical method. A data base should be established for use as a standard for each cultivar.

The difficulty is in identifying which is/are the true original plant/plants, (standard cultivars), particularly where there are several sources all claiming to have plants of a particular cultivar.

Samples from a minimum of five different sources, preferably in different countries, should be analysed and where there is a majority of identical results the “standard cultivar”, or cultivars where the it is known to be widely planted, e.g ‘Alba Plena’, be chosen from this majority. Morphological characteristics and molecular profiles should then be made available for others to use, and included in a new List (see below). Some form of ICS certification is suggested in order to provide validity for these plants.

Stage 4.  Propagation from the identified, certified, specimens then follows, in order to establish living, certified, collections of cultivars from these sources; in other words ICS recognised gene banks.

Material is then made available to nurseries and collectors for propagation around the world. I would suggest that work is initially confined to the relatively small number of old specimens of 19th century and pre-19th century cultivars, of C.japonica, termed “Antique camellias”. Work on more recent cultivars can follow.


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