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Camellia X hortensis T. Tanaka
and the
introduction of Chinese Species to Japan in Older Times

Takayuki Tanaka

The School of Agriculture, Tokai University, Minami-aso-mura, Aso-gun, Kumamoto 869-1404, Japan

Seedlings of the cultivated camellia segregate morphologically, suggesting that they have a hybrid origin, and are not merely a result of the intra-specific mutation of Camellia japonica.  However, there is no longer any doubt that one of the parent species of many cultivated camellias is C. japonica, not only because of the morphological similarities, the place of their birth, Japan, but also because of the existence of small brown spots (tanniferous cork warts) on the abaxial surface of the leaves of most camellia cultivars, a characteristic observed exclusively on the leaf of C. japonica within the genus Camellia.  Almost all camellia cultivars have the small brown spots on the leaf.

Based on these findings, I named the cultivars of camellia as Camellia x hortensis T. Tanaka to distinguished them from C. japonica L. in the book, The Concept of Cultivar (2012, in Japanese), the denotation ‘x’ indicating that the species is of hybrid origin.

I have been trying to find the other parent species of the C. x hortensis for a long time.  It seems that they must be species of the section Camellia in the genus Camellia as e.g. C. x reticulata, being introduced from China to Japan in olden times.  Consequently, I studied many books, picture scrolls, folding screens, encyclopedias, and catalogues about camellias that were created in Japan during the Edo period (1603 - 1868) and in which we can find many Chinese camellia species.

List of picture scrolls and books of camellias used for this study

Hyaku-chin-syu(百椿集) 1630
Hyaku-chin-zu(百椿図) 1633
Edozu-byobu ( 江戸図屏風 ) ~1700
Momoiro-tsubaki ( 百色椿 ) ~1700
Koshikishi-tsubaki-e ( 小色紙椿絵 ) ~1700
Chinka-zuhu ( 椿花図譜 ) ~1700
Chinka-hariawase-byobu(椿花貼合屏風) ~1700
Zoho-chikinsyo(増補地錦抄) 1710
Zoho-kadan-taizen(増補花壇大全) 1813
Honzo-zufu(本草図譜) 1829
Chinka-hyakusyu(椿花百種) 1881
Tsubaki-fu(椿譜) 1800-1900
 (and some others)

1.jpgFigure 1: Momoiro-tsubaki 百色椿 ~1700


Hyaku-chin-shu (One Hundred Camellia Collection) is a camellia book written circa 1630 by Sakuden Anrakuan.  There he states that before 1615, the number of camellia cultivars had been very limited such as ‘Shiratama-tsubaki’ (white flower) and after the end of 1615, many new beautiful camellia cultivars were created. 


Hyaku-chin-zu (One Hundred Camellia Pictures) is one of the oldest and most beautiful of the camellia picture scrolls.  Tadakuni Matsudaira (1597-1659), one of the Tokugawa Shogun family, ordered the famous artist Sanraku Kano (1559-1635) in 1633 to draw the pictures of his camellia collection on a scroll.  The combination of flowers, treasures and poems were amazing.  I imagined that he proudly showed it to the people in high society and asked them to decorate the camellias by writing their original poems. As a result, fifty-one of the one hundred cultivars had poems attached, praising the beauty of these flowers. Then some of the people were so enthralled by camellias that this gave rise to the first camellia boom. 

2.jpgFigure 2: Beni-chiri-tsubaki 紅散椿’ in Hyakuchinzu百椿図,1633

C. changii Ye in the Edo period

The ‘Tenzen’ in the book, Hyakuchinzu (1633) was very similar to the Azalea camellia, i.e. C. changii.  If the ‘Tenzen’ is Azalea camellia, it must have already been introduced to Japan in the early 17th century.  Azalea camellia in the section Lucidissima was found in 1985 in China.  It has attractive red flowers with narrow petals and blooms all year round, and so Gao et al. (2008) used it as a breeding parent for the perpetual camellia.

Although the rounded leaves of the Azalea camellia look somewhat different from those of ‘Tenzen’, they usually did not draw leaves accurately in the Edo period.  The ‘Tenzen’ is extinct, however, from the morphological points of view having narrow leaves and petals, but the old cultivars, ‘Yuri-tsubaki’ in the Koshikishi-tsubaki-e in 17th century and ‘Kujaku-tsubaki’, might be the offspring of the C. changii.

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Figure 3: ‘Tenzen’ てんぜん’ in Hyakuchinzu百椿図,1633, Camellia changii and ‘Yuri-tsubaki(ゆり椿)’ in ‘Momoiro-tsubaki (百色椿)’, ~1700

C. chekiangoleosa Hu. in the Edo period

‘Chosen Tsubaki’ in the books, Hyakka-tsubaki-nayose-irozuke published in circa 1722, Zoho-kadan-taizen in 1813 and Chinka-hyakushu in 1881 was very similar to C. chekiangoleosa.  As the name Chosen means Korea and C. chekiangoleosa does not grow wild in Korea, the cultivar might have been introduced into Japan via Korea from China.

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Figure 4: Chinka-hyakushu 椿花百種, 1881 and C. chekiangoleosa

C. pitardii in the Edo period

In the 2012 ICS Congress, I reported that C. x wabiske is of hybrid origin, between C. japonica and C. pitardii, and the primary hybrid between the two species must be ‘Tarōkaja’.  The first record of C. x wabiske was 'Kochō-wabisuke’ in the Japanese book Kadan-Chikinsho published in 1695 and that of 'Tarōkaja' was in 1739 in the book Honzo-Hanamaki-e.  However, ‘Tarōkaja’ could be traced back even before 1549 if ‘Usuiro-tsubaki’ was the synonym of ‘Tarōkaja’ from the record of the Japanese tea ceremony.

8.jpg 9.jpg 10.jpg

Figure 5: ‘Wabisuke わびすけ’ in Baien-tsubaki-kafu 梅園海石榴花譜, 1844-1846,
C. pitardii and ‘Tarōkaja太郎冠者’

C. reticulata in the Edo period

There are several old trees of C. reticulata in Japan as well as in China.  Some of them are estimated about 300 years old and are considered to be ‘Satsuma-kurenai’ which is a synonym of ‘Captain Rawes’.  The elliptic, caudate, prominently and regularly serrulate leaves of ‘Kumagai’ and some other cultivars are very different from those of C. japonica but somewhat similar to C. reticulata.  Many cultivars similar to C. reticulata can be found in many books and picture scrolls written in the Edo period.  They can easily be distinguished not only by their morphological characteristics but also by their names, ‘To’ (Chinese), ‘Namban’ (Portuguese and Spanish) or ‘Holland’.

11.jpg 12.jpg

Figure 6: ‘Kara-tsubaki唐椿’ in Honzo-zufu 本草図譜,
1829 and ‘Kara-nishiki唐錦’ in Kokon-yoranko古今要覧稿, 1836

Perfect double flower

The famous perfect double flower, ‘Otome’ appeared in the book Honzo-zufu (1829), while other perfect double cultivars, namely 'Suminokura' appeared in the book Hyakuchinshu (1630) and 'Yoichi' in two picture scrolls, Hyakuchinzu (1633), Momoiro-tsubaki (ca. 1680) amongst others.  Though the cultivar 'Yoichi' does not exist anymore, it looks like the white or red 'Suminokura'.  The name, Yoichi (1571 - 1632) is the name of the son of Ryōi Suminokura (1554 - 1614).

Miscellaneous flower forms in the Edo period

There are some other exceptional flower types found in the Edo period such as ‘Sizuka’ shown in Kokon-yoranko (1836).  Some of them might be wild species from China or from other places.

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Figure 7: ‘Otome乙女’ in Honzo-zufu 本草図譜, 1829

Flower color

In the old scroll Hyakuchinzu from the 1630s, almost all of the flower color types of the cultivated camellia appeared such as red, pink, white but also striped, spotted, red- or white-edged and other combinations as well as a diversity of flower form.  Moreover, blue and yellow coloured flowers, still very rare, were also found in the Edo period.  In a folding screen painted in early 17th century, both yellow and blue camellias were shown growing in the flower garden of the Shogun’s Edo castle.  The cultivar ‘Ki-tsubaki’, which means ‘Yellow camellia’, was illustrated in Kokon-yoranko (1836).  Moreover, about 30 years ago, a Buddhist monk in the Kumamoto prefecture of Japan, told me that there had been a yellow camellia in the garden of his temple.

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Figure 8: Blue camellia in Hyakuchinzu百椿図,1633 and
‘Yellow camellia 黄つばき’in ‘Kokon-yoranko(古今要覧稿)’, 1836

Triploid barrier

Most of the species in the genus Camellia are diploid (2n=2x=30) or hexaploid (2n=6x=90) with some exceptions such as the tetraploid C. granthamiana (2n=4x=60).  Triploid (2n=3x=45) plants do not appear in the seedlings from diploid parent very often but appear by crossing tetraploid and diploid parents.  One of the reason why I did not consider the possibility of C. reticulata (6x) being one of the parent for C. × hortensis (mostly 2x) for a long time was this triploid barrier.  Generally speaking, triploid individuals show very strong sterility.  In the introgression of hexaploid species into the diploid cultivar group by the recurrent backcrosses of diploid C. japonica, the intermediate step of triploid plants is required.  Fifteen of 50 cultivars of Higo camellia were triploid  (2n = 3x = 45) and triploid ‘Kumagai’ and/or triploid ‘Higo-Kumagai’ set fruits occasionally, suggesting the possibility of introgression from hexaploid species into C. x hortensis. 

Role of the Suminokura Family

In the beginning (up to 1639) of the Edo period (1603-1868), Japan was not yet politically isolated.  We can readily assume that few Japanese people at that time were able and willing to introduce species of the genus Camellia from China.  The Suminokura family was famous then for having made a fortune by overseas trading in southern China and Vietnam, both countries being the centers of the genus Camellia.  According to the book written by Anrakuan Sakuden, 1615 was the year when a number of beautiful camellias were first dramatically released.  Therefore, the Chinese parent of these camellia cultivars must have been introduced to Japan already before 1615.  This is the time when the Suminokura family was trading with the southern part of China.  These three facts, i.e. the cultivar name, ‘Suminokura’ (or ‘Yoichi)’, the time period of overseas trading by the Suminokura family and the ‘break-through year’ of camellia cultivars explosion, indicate to me that the Suminokura family introduced Camellia species from China and played an important role in originating camellia cultivars, C. x hortensis.

17.jpgFigure 9: ‘Yoichi 与市’ in Hyakuchinzu 百椿図, 1633 and Momoiro-tsubaki 百色椿, ~1700


Beautiful camellia cultivars from Japan to China and Europe

On the list of items exported from Japan to China in 1711, there were camellias and peonies.  Thus, the beautiful camellias were bred and then exported from Japan to China.  

During the Edo period, Japanese developed camellia cultivars as well as many other plants; azaleas, cherry blossoms, Japanese irises, morning glories, chrysanthemums and numerous variegated leaf cultivars.  In particular, the camellia played a major role in initiating the boom in horticulture during the Edo period, the first camellia boom dating from the early Edo period (1615).

In his The Book of Tea, Kakuzo Okakura wrote ;
“He (the average Westerner) was wont to regard Japan as barbarous while her people (Japanese) indulged in the gentle arts of peace: he calls her civilized after she began to commit wholesale slaughter on Manchurian battlefields.  ……  Fain would we remain barbarians, if our claim to civilization were to be based on the gruesome glory of war.  Fain would we await the time when due respect shall be paid to our art and ideals.”

In Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain (International Camellia Congress 2014), we found very many camellias.  From the ages of the trees and their history, it seems that the region experienced three booms of camellias, the first in 1860, the second in 1960 and the third contemporary.  The first boom was started in 1854 when Japan opened its country to the rest of the world, and Japonism, the Japanese influence on fashion and aesthetics was recognised in Europe..  Robert Fortune (1812- 1880), an English plant hunter, compared in his book, Yedo and Peking (1863), the differences not only of the horticulture but also the other cultural aspects between Japan and China, i.e. the cultures of Japan were quite different from those of China.  He also wrote the following paragraph:

“A remarkable feature in the Japanese character is that, even to the lowest classes, all have an inherent love for flowers,  …….  If this be one of the tests of a high state of civilization amongst a people, the lower orders amongst the Japanese come out in a most favourable light when contrasted with the same classes amongst ourselves (English).”

In the 19th century, England was the strongest world power and also was considered to have the highest culture all over the world.  Though the term, Japonism, is used particularly to refer to the  influence of Japanese art, culture, and aesthetics on European art, I reconfirmed the influence of Japanese horticulture in European countries by the age of the camellia trees in Pontevedra. 


I did not agree that most cultivated camellias belong to the same species of the wild camellia, Camellia japonica, since I started working on the genus Camellia about 40 years ago.  Therefore, I name most of the cultivated camellias developed in Japan as Camellia x hortensis T. Tanaka to distinguished them from C. japonica L.  C. x hortensis and C. japonica are distinguished by their flower form, i.e. C. x hortensis has a flat form flower, while C. japonica shows a trumpet-form flower.  Moreover, the typical C. x hortensis shows gorgeous large or double flowers.  Though C. x hortensis and C. japonica are difficult to distinguish by their leaves, some cultivars of C. x hortensis have elliptic, caudate and/or prominently or regularly serrulate leaves.  They are complicated species of hybrid origin between Camellia japonica and several Chinese species of the genus Camellia, many being developed in the Edo period.  However, we have to pay attention to the following two notes :
Note 1     C. x hortensis does not include all of the cultivars or cultivar groups of camellia of hybrid origin, such as C. x wabiske (between C. japonica and C. pitardii), C. x williamsii (between C. x japonica and C. saluenensis ), C. x vernalis (between C. japonica and C. sasanqua) .   
Note 2     C. japonica L. is still a species of not only wild camellia growing in Japan and in a part of Korea, but also wild type camellia cultivars which show only intra-specific variations of the species. 


I would like to express my appreciation to the following people and organizations who kindly showed me the important documents and books written in the Edo period.

  • Mr. Ogasawara and Mr. Kishikawa
         Collectors of old books of camellias
  • Kyoto University, Kyoto
  • Nezu Musium, Tokyo
  • Japanese National Diet Library
  • Tokyo Metropolitan Library
  • Eisei Library, Tokyo and Kumamoto
  • Edo-Tokyo Museum

I would also like to express my sincere appreciation to my students who worked very enthusiastically, to the ICS and the Otomo Fund which supported this work financially and also to Dr. Georg Ziemes for editing my paper.

Literature Cited

Japanese Camellia Society. 1999. The memorial book of Miyazaki ICS Congress.
Kirino S. 1986. Flowers at tea ceremony. Camellia and Wabisuke (in Japanese). Bunka-shuppan-kyoku, Tokyo, pp. 33–54.
Kitamura, S.  1961.  Camellia species.  Shin-Kaki 29 : 3 - 8 ( in Japanese )
Kondo, K.  1976.  A historical review of taxonomic complexes of cultivated taxa of Camellia.  Amer. Camellia Yearb.  102 –115.
Kondo, K., and C. R. Parks. 1981. Cytological studies in cultivated species of Camellia.  IV. Giemsa C-banded karyotypes of seven Camellia japonica L. sensu late. accessions of  Japan. J. Breed. 31 ( 1 ) : 26 – 34.
Kondo, K., M. Fujishima, H. Na, L. Xia and Z. Gu.  1989.  A comparison of quantitative characters of leaf and flower in C. japonica, C. pitardii, C. reticulata and C. saluenensis.  Japan. J. Breed. 39 ( 4 ) : 457 – 470.
Makino, T.  1910.  Observation on the flora of Japan.  The Botanical Magazine 24 : 70 - 84
Nakai, T.  1950.  On Camellia japonica, C. sasanqua and tea-plants.  Shizen-kagaku to Hakubutsukan 17 (2) :1 - 17. ( in Japanese )
Okakura, K.  1906.  The Book of Tea. Fox, Duffield & Company, New York.
Parks, C. R. and K. Kondo. 1974. Breeding studies in the genus Camellia ( Theaceae ). I. A chemotaxonomic analysis of synthetic hybrids and backcrosses involving C. japonica and C. saluenensis . Brittonia 26 :321 – 332.
Fortune, R. 1863. Yedo and Peking : A Narrative of a Journey to the Capitals of Japan and China.  John Murray, London.  
Sealy, J. R. 1958. A revision of the Genus Camellia. The Royal Horticultural Society, London. pp.239.
Tanaka, T.  1986.  Cytogenetic studies on the origin of Camellia x vernalis.  J. Japan. Soc. Hort. Sci.  56 ( 3 ) : 452 - 456.
Tanaka, T., S. Kirino, N. Hakoda, K. Fujieda and T. Mizutani. 2001. Studies on the origin of Camellia wabiske. Proc. Sch. Agric. Kyushu Tokai Univ., 20:1–7.
Tanaka, T. 2010. Introduction of Higo-sasanqua. International Camellia Journal 42:58-64.
Tanaka, T. 2011. Camellia papuana Kan. et Hat., a phantom. International Camellia Journal 43:36-38.
Tanaka, T. 2012a. The Concept of Cultivar.  Tokai Univ. Pub. Ltd. (in Japanese).
Tanaka, T. 2012b. Horticulture and Culture.  Kumamoto Nichinichi  Shinbunsha, Kumamoto (in Japanese).
Tanaka, T. 2012c. Studies on the origin of C. x wabiske. International Camellia Journal 44:142-147.
Tanaka, T. and K. Suzuki. 2013. Momoiro-tsubaki, The picture scroll of camellia.  J. Japan. Camellia Society.  51 : 14 – 28 (in Japanese).


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