Gardeners in southern California and the southeastern United States are likely familiar with camellia shrubs (Camellia spp.) in garden settings. These evergreen shrubs or trees can grow 3 to 70 feet tall and are long-lived plants, easily lasting over 100 years. The glossy dark green leaves are attractive, as are the flowers which range in color from white to red. Tea is produced from the young, tender leaves of one particular species of camellia plant.
Camellia is the name of a botanical genus which comprises over 250 different species. The name "Camellia" was assigned by botanist Carl Linnaeus to this genus in honor of the Jesuit priest Joseph Kamel who first scientifically described a plant in the 18th century. The common name "camellia" is ambiguously used for any of these species unless there is a local or regional name that provides a more specific assignment, such as "sasanqua" or "tea."
Camellias grow in woodlands across southern Asia. The various species are found naturally anywhere from northern India and the Himalayas to China and Japan and southward to northern Indonesia, Java and Sumatra.
Camellias have smooth bark and medium to dark green leaves that are oval and tapering, often with tiny serrations on their edges. The leaves are arranged in an alternating pattern on branches. The flowers occur anytime from late summer to late spring, depending on species and the climate in which they grow. The waxy blossoms are usually found solitary on branch tips, although in pairs or a small cluster is possible. They are rarely fragrant. Flower colors range from white to various shades of pink and red. The International Camellia Society utilizes a color reference called the Berlese Color Chart. This chart calls pink and red tones: light rose red, light cherry red, dark cherry red and orange-red. Pale tones are referred to as "flesh colored." Some flowers are pale yellow or ecru-cream.
In garden settings, there are some specific species of camellias grown exclusively for their ornate foliage and flower features. Modern breeders genetically cross these species to create plants with complex lineages; these are not assigned a species name, only a cultivar name. The most common garden camellia species are Camellia japonica, Camellia sasanqua, Camellia reticulata, Camellia hiemalis and Camellia oleifera. Camellia sinensis is the commercial source for beverage tea, but it also produces attractive white flowers for enjoyment in a garden setting.
In the United States, camellias are described in various ways to differentiate all the different species and cultivars grown ornamentally. One category is blooming season. According to the American Horticultural Society's "A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants," the blooming periods used are early season (before January 1), midseason (between January 1 and March 1) and late season (after March 1). The forms of the ornate flowers also help differentiate camellia plants. Six forms used to generalize the expected flowers on camellia shrubs include single, semi-double, anemone-form, peony-form, rose-form double and formal double.