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Ancient camellias in Galicia and Portugal

Armada J.1, Vela P.2

1 Pazo de Santa Cruz de Rivadulla, Vedra, Spain. E-mail:
2 Estación Fitopatolóxica do Areeiro, Deputación de Pontevedra, Subida a la Robleda s/n, 36153 Pontevedra, Spain


In Galicia (NW Spain) and Portugal there are many old camellias, some of them more than 150 years old, which can be found both in public and private gardens. In the 19th century these camellias were planted outside, because by that time people knew that they could be cultivated in the open air without any risk, contrary to what had been expected from an exotic plant introduced from Eastern unknown lands.

The camellias attracted the attention of the travellers to China or Japan, their places of origin, due to their shrubby appearance, their evergreen and bright leaves and especially because they bloom in winter, as had happened centuries ago with the orange trees and their fruits. These camellias were known as Chinese roses (Edwards, 1747, Samartin & Pérez, 1988).

The first camellias were introduced to the West as seeds, because that was the easiest way to transport them, since it was difficult to water and care for living plants in pots during long journeys.
The oldest camellias in Galicia have single red flowers. The first specimens were planted as single specimens in gardens, since their behaviour in the open air was unknown. As soon as people knew the size that this shrub could reach, either because they cultivated the plant or they had information provided by the people that had seen these plants in the East, the appropriate planting spacing was determined. From then on, the camellias started to be planted in groups. They were planted in rows, bordering paths, proof of sound knowledge of camellia behaviour.

The first documented living camellias were exhibited in England in 1739, in the greenhouses of the gardens of Robert James, 8th Lord Petre, in Thorndon Hall (Essex). Of these plants, probably brought from China by Jesuit missionaries (Samartín, 1988) or by English traders and sailors (Short, 2005), only two paintings are preserved, but not the living plants.
Ancient plants of Camellia in Campobello The three oldest living camellias in Europe grow in Caserta (Italy), Pillnitz (Germany) and Campobello (Portugal) (Figure 1), and all of them were probably planted in the same period, at the end of the 18th century. The three plants have single red flowers (Figure 2). The molecular analysis performed at the Estación Fitopatolóxica de Areeiro (Pontevedra, Spain) showed that the three plants were identical for the microsatellite regions analysed (Vela et al., 2009).


Figure 1: Ancient plants of Camellia in Campobello (Portugal)

Campobello (Portugal) 

Campobello (Portugal)

Caserta (Italy)

Caserta (Italy)

Pillnitz (Germany) 

Pillnitz (Germany)

Figure 2. Detail of the flowers of the camellia plants in Portugal, Italy and Germany

The origin of these plants is unknown and controversial. They could have come from Kew Gardens (England), where they were introduced, imported from Japan, and from there they were then disseminated in Europe. The mother plant could also be the ancient camellia planted in Campobello, which was introduced in Porto (Portugal) where it was propagated, and then from here they were disseminated to other regions in Europe. Although there is no written documentation that proves that camellias arrived in Portugal before the 1800s, Portuguese sailors arrived in China and Japan in the first half of the 16th century, and it is likely that among the plants they brought back, there were some camellias (Salinero & González, 2006). This fact, and the existence of plants that are more than 200 years old, may conclude that the camellias could have arrived in Portugal before being imported into England (Gil de Seabra, 2005).

Galician Monumental Camellias (NW Spain)

5.jpgThe book Árboles monumentales en el Patrimonio Cultural de Galicia (Monumental Trees in the Galician Cultural Heritage) (Rodríguez-Dacal e Izco, 2003) published in 2013, mentions eight municipalities or Pazos with ancient camellias. These are the Pazo de Mariñán, Pazo de Lens, Pazo de Santa Cruz de Rivadulla, Pazo de Oca, Soutomaior Castle, Pazo Torres de Agrelo and Pazo Quiñones de León (Castrelos). They are located in A Coruña and Pontevedra provinces. These gardens are distributed along a line parallel to the coast  and between the municipalities of A Coruña and Vigo (Figure 3).



Figure 3. Location of Galician Monumental Camellias

The perimeters and height of these monumental specimens are proof of their age. Some of the trees are 15 metres tall and have trunk perimeters of around 2 metres (Figure 4).

Location of Galician Monumental Camellias

Figure 4. Monumental camellia at the Pazo de Santa Cruz de Rivadulla

How did the first camellias come to be introduced into Spain and Portugal?

Establishment of trade between the Iberian Peninsula and the East in the 16th century
In 1494 the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed by Spain and Portugal. Both countries agreed to divide the newly discovered lands outside Europe between Portugal and Spain along a meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. The lands to the east would belong to Portugal and the lands to the west to Spain (Lanzaco, 2011).

In 1497-99 Vasco de Gama sailed down the coast of Africa and arrived in Calicut in India. In 1509 Diego Lopes de Sequeira arrived in Malacca (Malaysia). Then, in 1511, the Portuguese reached the Maluku Islands. In 1513 Jorge Álvares first explored Southern China and in 1514 Portugal started the first voyages to China with commercial aims. They arrived in China to sell the spices from Molucca and returned to Portugal. In 1517 the first Portuguese commercial vessel reached Guangzhou (China).

In 1557 the city of Macao became the centre of Portuguese trade with China. Silk, teas, chinaware, lacquer and other goods coveted by the Europeans started to be introduced in Europe. The silks introduced from China to Japan were also traded in by the Portuguese. Portuguese had the monopoly of the silk trade with Japan until 1571 (Lanzaco, 2011).

However, it was not until 1519, with the travels of Ferdinand Magellan, that the West was also explored. He departed from Sanlúcar de Barrameda with five vessels, sailing down the coast of South America looking for the Maluku Islands to the west. They reached the Maktan Islands in 1521 where Magellan died. These islands would be designated with the name Philippines to honour the Spanish King. Juan Sebastián Elcano, who took over command of the Nao Victoria, after Magellan’s death, sailed down the coast of Africa and completed the first circumnavigation in 1522. The Nao Victoria arrived in Seville with plenty of spices as a proof of the great feat.
The Spanish were able to reach the Philippine Islands, from America but they did not know how to go back to America from the Philippines until 1565, when Andrés de Urdaneta discovered the return voyage. In 1571 the city of Manila belonged to Spain and so from there departed the route to America, called tornaviaje, the return voyage or Route of the Manilla Galleon, which lasted from four to five months.

In 1580 Philip II of Spain became the King of Portugal, thus these two kingdoms were joined until 1640 when Philip IV was King. This circumstance brought about an increasing trade between Spain and Portugal. However, the terms of the Treaty of Tordesillas were maintained. In fact, during the 16th century the Pacific Ocean was known as the Spanish Lake.

In 1582 the first Japanese embassy arrived on the Iberian Peninsula, and following the Portuguese route, reached Lisbon in August 1584. In September of the same year the embassy arrived in Spain and were welcomed by the Pope Gregory XIII. They left Spain, said goodbye to Phillip II, and returned to Japan in 1590.

In October 1613 another embassy left Japan for Spain. This Japanese embassy, accompanied by the Spanish, reached Acapulco through the Pacific route. In June 1614 they left Veracruz (Mexico) to return to Spain, and after stopping in Seville, Córdoba and Toledo, they arrived in Madrid in December 1614. In January they were welcomed by the King Philip II. They visited Rome in October 1615, and were received by the Pope in November. In 1616 they returned to Mexico, and finally arrived back in Japan in 1620 after having stopped in Manila in 1618. Trade relations with Manila were broken in 1624.

The ‘Iberian century of Japan’ took place from 1543 to 1639 as well as trade with China, Japan, Philippines and Nueva España (Lanzaco, 2011).

Introduction of the first camellias in Galicia and Portugal

The introduction of the first camellias in Portugal and Galicia could have started in 1514 to 1517 when the Portuguese arrived in Canton, although with the establishment of the Macao base in 1557, the trade routes consolidated. After the 17th century the relations with Japan greatly deteriorated. However, China's trade with the Philippines and from these islands to Spain continued throughout the centuries until the late 19th century.

Although there is not written evidence on the arrival of camellias to the West in that period, at that time the name Camellia was not used to designate this genus, because it was not named until 1735. In 1735 Carl Linnaeus published his System Naturae establishing the system of classification of living beings and created the genus Camellia, to honour Kamel, author of the first descriptions of the native plants of the East This makes it difficult to find a reference to these plants in written documentation, as well as the difficulties found with the palaeography of the time. But it is very likely that among the goods brought from China and Japan there were plant seeds, and some of them could be camellia seeds. This fact, together with the knowledge of certain aspects of their culture, that can be seen in the plantation system of some of the camellias grown in the Pazo de Santa Cruz de Rivadulla, to which we refer later, makes us think that they were grown in the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula before the 18th century.

The history of camellias in the West has been documented since the late 17th century. Georg Joseph Kamel (1661-1706) travelled from Spain to the Philippines in 1687. He established relations with James and John Ray Petiver from London since 1697 and he sent them his works and drawings. These documents were published from 1699 to 1712, but most drawings of plants and animals remain unpublished. Although the tea was not considered a Camellia at that time, Kamel knew and drew this plant (Figure 5).

Drawing of the leaves and fruits of the ‘Tchia’ plant

Figure 5. Drawing of the leaves and fruits of the ‘Tchia’ plant in a Georg Joseph Kamel manuscript, which is part of the Jesuit Book Collection of the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium)

The camellias at Santa Cruz de Rivadulla

In 1959 Alfonso Armada, son of the former owner of Pazo de Santa Cruz de Rivadulla (Vedra, Galicia, NW Spain), wrote an article in the American Camellia Yearbook, which was a theory about the first introduction of camellias to Galicia directly from the East (Armada, 1959).

Since the 16th century the layout of the gardens of the Pazo is known, therefore the evolution of the camellia collection of the garden can be determined.

In the late 16th or early 17th century a main road starting in the west façade of the Pazo and heading south towards the stream running along the bottom of the garden was created. On both sides of this path ornamental species were planted. On the left side there are four ancient single red flower camellias planted in row and spaced about three metres apart. Now they reach about 10 meters (Figures 6, 7 and 8).

The location of these plants in one of the main paths of the garden is indicative of the importance that was given to the camellias at the time of planting, and the fact that they were planted in rows and at three metres apart, makes us think that their behaviour was already known, i.e. that the cultivation of camellias in the northwest of the Iberian peninsula was not new.

8.jpg 9.jpg

Figures 6, 7 and 8. Old Camellia japonica specimens of red single flowers planted in row and 3 metres apart at the Pazo de Santa Cruz de Rivadulla

In the last quarter of the 17th century (around 1674) the main building of the Pazo was enlarged, doubling the size of the façade. The old main road was then in the middle of the extended façade.

11.jpgIn the southwest corner of the new façade, another path was created and later there were more camellias planted in a row on the left hand side but these had double flowers and were more widely spaced. One of the specimens was very similar to ‘Oranda-ko’ (Figure 9). This planting took place in the 18th century.

From handwritten notes dating from the 19th century (Figure 10) we knew that at the "bottom of the meadow" more camellias were planted, usually double and ancient varieties such as cultivars of C. japonica 'Alba Plena', 'Incarnata' or 'Fimbriata' (Gimson , 1986).

After the last half of the 19th century more camellias were planted along this walk, together with other camellias designated as "old camellias". The camellias whose name was already known when planted, were varieties obtained between 1792 and 1894.

Figure 9. Specimen of the variety similar to Camellia japonica ‘Oranda-ko’ at the garden of the Pazo

12.jpgAll these varieties came from well-known nurserymen in Belgium, France, Italy, Portugal and the United Kingdom as well as those brought directly from China or Japan.

In the late 19th century, camellias and rhododendrons were also planted in another path, known as ‘Bride’s Walk’. These new camellia specimens, younger and also carefully listed in the manuscript comprised cultivars created from 1806 to 1897 (Figure 11).

Many more camellias were planted during the 19th century of which we do not have full information on planting dates. These are the camellias planted around the big pond, near the mill, in the camellia nursery, etc.
Different varieties of camellias were planted in the garden of Santa Cruz de Rivadulla until the late 19th century. They were up to 300 according to the handwritten notes (Gimson, 1986).


Figure 10. Manuscript from the late 19th century listing the camellia varieties planted in the garden

During the 20th century more than one hundred new cultivars were planted, so now the collection of camellias comprises about 300 different varieties, some of them are new plants replacing those lost during the last century.
There is a large number of single C. japonica plants, with red or white flowers, which are scattered around different areas of the garden, some born naturally or by means of an animal vector, thus creating a natural camellia forest unique in Europe.

The Pazo has a nursery where, besides the new cultivars planted in the 20th century, the most ancient specimens of the garden are propagated.

13.jpgFigure 11. Photographs of some Camellia japonica specimens planted at the end of the 19th century in the ‘Bride’s Walk’ and listed in the 19th century manuscript


Armada A.  1959. Some notes on Camellias in Spain. American Camellia Yearbook. 235-238.
Edwards G. 1747. A natural history of birds, most of which have not been figured or described, and others very little known, from obscure or too brief descriptions without figures, or from figures very ill designed (Part II). Ed. Royal College of Physicians, London, UK.
Gil de Seabra C. 2005. Breve historia da camélia em Portugal. Camelia 6: 9-11. Pontevdra, Spain.
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Samartín M.C., Pérez A. 1988. La Camelia. Un regalo oriental para occidente. Editorial Everest. León, Spain.
Short H. 2005. The truth of Lord Petre’s camellias. The International Camellia Journal. 56-59.
Vela P., Couselo J.L., Salinero C., González M., Sainz M.J. 2009. Morpho-botanic and molecular characterization of the oldest camellia trees in Europe. International Camellia Journal. 51-57.


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