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Old Camellias, new ways

Cordeiro, L. *, Paz, E. * & Sales, F. *, **

*Centre for Functional Ecology, CEF, Department of Life Sciences, University of Coimbra, 3001-401 Coimbra, Portugal
** Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, EH3 5LR, UK


Tourism is the world’s biggest industry and the World Tourism Organization predicts an increasingly higher annual growth (Tourism Economics, 2012; World Tourism Organization, 2013; Khovanova-Rubicondo, 2011). UNESCO promotes responsible tourism, recommending ‘a new approach based on dialogue and stakeholder cooperation where planning for tourism and heritage management is integrated at a destination level, the natural and cultural assets are valued and protected, and appropriate tourism developed’ (UNESCO, 2011). More and more people are defining recreation as an educational opportunity (Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute, 2006).

This modern concept of cultural tourism constitutes the framework for a project currently being developed in Mata do Bussaco, based on its outstanding camellia collection. The project aims at developing tourist experiences that promote science education, environment awareness and heritage conservation. The expectation is that it will also help the camellia cultivar identification work underway in Bussaco, intended as a pilot study for a nation-wide historic camellia survey.

The site: Mata do Bussaco

Mata do Bussaco is a cultural landscape in Central Portugal, spread over a slope between 190 and 548 m of altitude, located at the transition between the Mediterranean and Atlantic bioclimates.

The woodland was given by the Bishop of Coimbra to the Carmelites in 1628. They settled there, built a small monastery and transformed the landscape in accordance with their contemplative life by building shady walks, staircases, chapels and fountains. They planted many new trees, but left untouched parts of the native forest rich in oak and laurel. The monks went to extreme lengths to protect the forest, constructing a 2.5m-high wall to enclose its 90 ha and obtaining a bull from Pope Urban VIII threatening with major excommunication anyone found felling a tree without permission. The site, later enlarged to 105 hectares, is unique for housing botanic collections continuously protected and enriched over 3 centuries (Lopes, 2012; Matos, 2012; Simões, 2013).

In 1810, Bussaco was the site of a major battle of the Napoleonic Wars. The monastery served as Wellington’s headquarters. Shortly after (1834), the religious orders were abolished in Portugal. The site became a national property, but was virtually abandoned until 1856. Restoration works started then, under the national forestry authority, and important developments took place then, with the introduction of numerous species from Australia, the Far East, Africa and America (Paiva, 2004).

The planting of camellias probably started in 1884, when the Viscount of Villar d’Allen offered an important camellia collection from his Quinta in Porto, where he had developed one of the largest Portuguese camellia collections of the 19th century. The offer is documented in detail; it comprised thirty of the most highly prized cultivars of the time, 27 of them of foreign origin (Cordeiro et al., 2014).

By the end of the 19th century, King Luís I planned to build a royal residence in Bussaco. However, due to strong controversy around the project, it was reconfigured in the shape of the luxurious Bussaco Palace Hotel, a magnificent limestone building in neo-Manueline style, completed in 1906.

The rich heritage of the area is the guiding principle for year-round tourism that explores many different facets (Figure 1. G-I), but plants are the most important from the point of view of the project on ornamental camellias. The botanical, historic and aesthetic value of the 19th century camellia collection can greatly contribute to the enrichment of garden visiting experiences.


             A                             B                                              C


                               D                                                  E                           F


            G                                    H                                                 I

Figure 1. The major assets of Mata do Bussaco are its historical heritage and rich biodiversity. A Detail of a mosaic representing the coat of arms of the Carmelites; B Entrance to the Carmelite Monastery; C The endemic lizard, Lacerta schreibersi; D Fern Valley with the tree fern Dicksonia antarctica; E Forest Staircase with Cascade; F Monumental Sequoia sempervirens; G Flyer on handcraft activities; H Guided tour in the Arboretum; I TV broadcast musical event.

New ways for old Camellias

The camellia collection at Bussaco is relatively large: 180 specimens have been mapped. It is reasonable to believe that many are part of the lot brought in 1884 from Quinta of Villar d’Allen in Porto (Cordeiro et al., 2014). Of the thirty different cultivars offered, several have been identified, from the better known C. japonica ‘Mathotiana Rubra’ (Spae, 1847) to the delicate C. japonica ‘Fimbriata’ (Loddiges & Sons, 1827).

In addition to promoting the enjoyment of the general public visiting Bussaco, the project aims at attracting camellia lovers, especially those interested in training on cultivar identification. Training will involve a set of workshops on (i) camellia history and nomenclature, (ii) camellia morphology, (iii) the characters and character states used in the forms the volunteers will be filling in for each specimen, (iv) the use of an interactive identification key for the camellia cultivars. These will be complemented by walks through the woodland to better understand camellia morphology and diversity.

It is hoped that this will promote voluntary contributions to the Portuguese Camellia Database (PORTELLIA), as these enthusiasts will be invited to survey historic camellia specimens and fill in forms (one per specimen) to be returned to the project. The forms are to be filled in with information on the location and morphology of each specimen. Both flower and vegetative morphological characters will be considered. Some will be selected from the literature (e.g. Savige, 1993; Remotti, 2002; Li et al., 2008; Vela et al., 2009) but others will be new, especially the vegetative characters, crucial for identification during the long seasonal period with no flowers. In the interactive identification key for camellia cultivars, all possible choices (variants or character states) are present for each character. Identification in done by elimination of the cultivars with features not present in the specimen (Figure 2). The identification key is already being developed by the project and is using the same morphological characters and character states selected for the forms. These tools will soon be made available through the web-site of the Herbarium of Coimbra University ( After validation, the collected information will be entered into the Portuguese Camellia Database.
Fig2Figure 2. Interactive identification key for camellia cultivars as it is shown on the computer screen. Fields in the key (A & C: Features;  B & D: Cultivars).  A Features available for choice; B Entities remaining, i.e. cultivars with the selected features; C Features chosen, i.e. features observed in the specimen (as they are selected);  D Entities discarded, i.e. cultivars without the features previously selected.

The scope of this project is long term and at national level; the identification and mapping of the Bussaco camellia collection is intended as a pilot study for a complete survey of historic camellias in Portugal.
In the short term, this study can help add a new dimension to tourism in Bussaco, by allowing the development of guided and interactive self-learning walks, quizzes, games and outdoor talks around the camellia theme, taking place in spectacular, romantic surroundings. These activities are in line with the idea that cultural heritage tourism should encapsulate the genius loci of the site and promote activities that authentically represent its history and that of the people who contributed to its development.


We are thankful to the Mata do Bussaco Foundation and the owners of Quinta of Villar d’Allen, José Alberto and Isaura Allen, for their kind collaboration.


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