The Collection: Camellia Species
The Huntington Camellia collection includes about sixty species and over 1400 different cultivars. These occupy approximately twelve acres of native oak woodland, divided between the area surrounding the North Vista and the canyon north of the Japanese Garden. When Mr. Huntington bought the land in 1903, two camellias were growing in the area north of the Shorb ranch home. Of these, a 'Pink Perfection' survives. (Located on the west path in the North Vista near Elegans Lane.) In 1908 and 1909, approximately two dozen large camellia plants were purchased from a local nursery and planted in the North Vista area. Additional plants were acquired along with the Japanese house and garden in 1912. In 1918, a small shipment of camellias came directly from Japan. The collection grew slowly until William Hertrich's interest in these plants increased and the Southern California Camellia Society became involved in 1944. In the late 1940's, the collection was expanded to the area north of the Japanese Garden, and this canyon planting was opened to the public in 1952.
In 1948, Descanso Gardens in La Cañada, and in 1950, The Huntington, imported a number of new Camellia reticulata cultivars from the Kunming Botanic Garden in Yunnan Province, China. Of what are said to have been fewer than twenty cultivars brought in by these two southern California gardens, many survived and were exchanged. Over the last decade, we have carefully re-identified these cultivars to insure the names are correct on the labels. Today examples can be seen on Reticulata Knoll, located on the west walk in the North Vista.
Camellia japonica seedling
Camellia japonica. This earliest-named species has proven the most popular horticulturally, with more than fifty thousand named cultivars introduced. It forms handsome shrubs or trees, with broad, rounded, shiny foliage, a tight compact growth habit, and single-to-double flowers seldom fragrant, ranging in color from white to red. Peak bloom season here is January through March. Originally native to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, it had been cultivated in China and Japan for centuries for its flowers, particlarly in the gardens of Buddhist temples. It was also grown for Tsubaki oil expressed from its seed and used as a hair dressing.
Camellia reticulata. This loosely-branched, lanky shrub or tree (up to fifty feet in height) is less compact and attractive in habit than Camellia japonica, but it produces some of the most spectacular flowers in the genus. Its foliage is broad, sharply pointed, and usually dull in finish. Flowers, in shades of pink to brilliant scarlet-reds are mostly semi-double. peak bloom is March through May. Camellia reticulata forms have long been grown in Chinese gardens, particularly in the province of Yunnan.
Camellia sasanqua. Another species native to Japan, this plant has smaller, more fleeting flowers in great profusion on plants with more gracefully drooping, weeping, or spreading habits than Camellia japonica. It also blooms earlier, beginning in October. Many Camellia sasanqua cultivars are fragrant. Along with the vegetatively-similar chinese native Camellia oleifera, it has long been cultivated for the production of tea seed oil, used in the textile industry for treatment of silk, for manufacture of soap, and in its refined form as a cooking oil.
Camellia sinensis. This camellia has been cultivated so widely and for so long that the location of its wild origin is uncertain. It occurs in two forms: the "China tea" (Camellia sinensis var. sinensis), probably native to western Yunnan province; and the "Assam tea" (Camellia sinensis var. assamica), native to Assam, Burma, Indochina, and southeastern China. The first yields the beverage; the second is pickled as a vegetable or chewed as a stimulant. Legends about the origin of tea drinking abound. One says that it was started by Confucius (c. 551-479 B.C.) in order to get his followers to boil their water. Tea was introduced to Japan at an early date, but the custom of preparing it as a drink did not reach other parts of the Far East until spread by Westerners in the seventeeth and eighteenth centuries. The British introduced tea cultivation to India in 1780.
Oriental green and black teas are derived from the same plants. The character of the beverage is determined by the timing of harvest, the duration of elaborate drying and oxidation, and by the addition of other aromatic herbs, flowers, or spices. Tea is a stimulant, containing theine, a substance virtually identical to caffeine. It is also rich in tannin, making it a useful astringent. (Several specimens of Camellia sinensis are located near the waterfall, bottom of stairs in North Canyon.)
Camellia oleifera. An important practical use of camellias is in the production of edible oil obtained from its seeds. Camellia oleifera, named for this characteristic, is cultivated extensively in China, where it originated. The oil is of very high quality and long storage life. A small tree with cinnamon bark, Camellia oleifera bears fragrant white flowers with long twisted petals. (A specimen is located left of the stairs leading to the Ikebana House.)
Camellia saluenensis. A small shrub, saluenensis has been important in the production of new and very different hybrids. Saluenensis crosses easily with other camellia species, particularly Camellia japonica, and many of these hybrids are distinguished by having greater cold tolerance, faded blooms falling off unaided, and flowers in great profusion. (One is located on the east walk of the North Vista.)
Camellia granthamiana. In 1955, a single plant was discovered on a hill in Hong Kong with large white flowers and golden stamens (often likened to a fried egg.) In cultivation, the flowers sometimes reach a dramatic 7 inches across. (A large specimen of this species is located at the southeast end of the North Vista.)
Camellia nitidissima. Rumors of the existence of a yellow camellia had been around for many years and when China opened up in the 1970's, seeds were taken out of the country and grown to flowering size. Although compatibility for hybridization is difficult, the species itself does produce a very waxy yellow single flower about 2 inches in diameter. (Plants are located near the waterfall, bottom of stairs in North Canyon.) Today, at least 25 species of camellias are known to have yellow flowers.
Camellia lutchuensis. The most sweetly fragrant of the camellia species, lutchuensis is a small shrub with dainty white blooms, small pointed leaves and tiny seed capsules. It has been used extensively since the early 1960's as a breeding parent in efforts to incorporate its aroma into hybrids with more attractive blossoms. A few successful crosses have been made. (Camellia lutchuensis is located adjacent to the pond, near the waterfall at bottom of stairs in North Canyon.)
Most species camellias held in the Huntington collections are represented in the area that wraps around the North end of the North Vista, called Species Lane. Developed in 2001, this garden area provides an unusual opportunity for visitors to compare most of the cultivated species.