A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Camellias, Tea, Soot & Menstrual Cycles
Monday, March 22, 2010

In our bedroom we have a large antique lawyer’s bookcase full of botanical books we began to purchase in 1986 when we moved to our current corner lot on Athlone Street. In it I have all my American Hosta Society Journals since I became a member in 1992. When Rosemary became interested in clematis or hardy geraniums or I suddenly could not read enough about roses, ferns, hydrangeas or euphorbias we bought the corresponding books on them.

Of all the books in the bookcase the only one I consult with regularity is Peter Beales’ Classic Roses. I also know that in the dead of winter I can discern hope in the spring by reading Christopher Lloyd’s pithy books on gardening. His books are opinionated but accurate almost as if they were written by a botanically enclined John McPhee.

For the last few weeks the four camellias in our garden have been showing off. I have been thinking how I could scan the flowers and write about them for the blog. The idea came yesterday when I received a phone call from my friend Mark Budgen who wanted to compare notes on our mutual like for very good loose tea.

Anybody who has gone beyond the usual “flow-thru” and un-ritualistic cup of contemporary brew that passes for tea must know that all tea (as in black and green) comes from one plant and that the plant in question is the lowly Camellia sinensis (its flowers do not compare to those of its flashier cousins) Camellia japonica and other species camellias and cultivars.

When the Brits showed interest in the liquid in the beginning of the 19th Century the crafty Chinese shipped plants of Camellia japonica. In spite of its beautiful flowers the leaves will not brew any tea of consequence.

The story of tea is told best by a woman called Frances Perry who wrote many books on plants. We have one of them called Flowers of the World – Illustrated by Leslie Greenwood – Foreword by The Lord Aberconway and published in collaboration with the Royal Horticultural Society, 1972. This with Peter Beales’ Classic Roses would be my desert island botanical tomes of choice.

Here is what Perry says (verbatim) of the camellia in its connection to tea (and along the way I find about the correct pronunciation of the word!).

The genus is named for Georg Kamel (Latinized as Camellus a Jesuit priest (1661-1706) who was particularly interested in natural science. He collected plants in both the Philippines and China although opinions differ as to whether he brought back Camellia seeds to Europe. Certainly he was responsible for introducing the St Ignatius Bean to Europe (Strychnos ignatii), one source of strychnine, and he also wrote a history of the plants of Luzon.

Economically the most important species is Camellia sinensis, the Tea Plant, the national beverage of China and one much prized by the English. Many tales and legends surround this plant, an especially charming story referring to an Indian Prince and Buddhist monk called Bodhidharma. This Prince is supposed to have landed on the shores of China in A.D. 510 with the object of converting its natives to Buddhism. To that end he dedicated his life to sleeplessness but one day, after years of wakeful teaching, praying and meditation Ta-Mo (as he was known to the Chinese) fell asleep. Mortified by this weakness of the flesh he cut off his eyelids and threw them on the ground where Buddha caused them to sprout and take root. These became the first Tea plants, the dried leaves of which assume the shape of eyelids and are supposed to represent and induce wakefulness.

Their employment as a beverage is supposed to have been discovered by another Buddhist. He lived the frugal life of a hermit and one day while making a fire with branches of Tea plant he accidentally dropped some leaves in a pot of boiling water. Later he tasted the liquid and finding it exhilarating and pleasant to the palate imparted the discovery to others. And so in course of time the practice of tea-making spread.

Around 1606 the Dutch set up Tea plantations in Java and soon afterwards brought this new beverage to Europe. In 1650 Peter Stuyvesant took it to North America although curiously it was 1652 before Tea reached England…Camellias (pronounced mell not meel)…

I cite the above information simply because of my paradoxical situation of wanting to keep all my books and at the same time realizing I don’t need them anymore. If I want to find information on why soot seems to appear on the leaves of my camellias (a common malady of camellias in our climate) I will find all the relevant information on the net. Few of my books unless I look into a specialized camellia book (I don’t have one) will explain that the black soot is a fungus or ‘sooty mould’ growing on the sugary honeydew secreted by aphids or scale insects. The honey dew drips down from the insects to the upper surface of the leaf below where the mould then grows. Although not harmful to the plant itself, the mould is a certain indication of the presence of one or other of these pests. It is readily moved with a cloth and warm soapy water, but to prevent its reappearance the root cause of the problem must be tackled. Although there are many types of scale insect, the one most commonly found on camellias is Pulvinaria floccifera, known as Cushion Scale or Cottony Camellia Scale.

They appear as small (up to about 5mm long), oval shells, ranging in colour from yellowy-green to brown, and found anchored limpet-like to the underside of leaves and sometimes on the stems. In late spring/early summer the females lay their eggs, which appear as a characteristic trail of white fluff behind them. The adults then die, and may drop from the leaf, leaving only the eggs behind. These hatch a few weeks later, and the tiny crawlers’ disperse themselves over the plant, or are blown by the wind to neighbouring plants, before attaching themselves to a leaf and beginning feeding. It is at this stage of their life-cycle that the insects are most vulnerable, before their waxy shell is fully developed.

Aphids are to be found on the soft, new growth and, later in the season, on the developing flower buds. Like scale insects, aphids are usually found on the underside of leaves where, undisturbed, they can rapidly form large colonies. As the plant growth hardens they will move on, but not before having distorted the foliage and formed lots of honeydew. Prevention is better than cure, and small numbers are easily controlled by wiping off with a damp cloth, or spraying with a jet of water. In fact I spray my camellias with a solution of warm water and dish soap and then I hose them off. A lot, but not all of the soot disappears.

In other botanical journals I found out that the British (and the East India Company) were stymied in not being able to get tea plants from the Chinese. In the 1840s English botanical adventurer Robert Fortune snuck into China and dressed as a Chinese potentate spied around and learned that both green tea (unfermented leaf) and black tea (fermented leaf) came from the same Camellia sinensis. He bribed officials and spirited plants out of China to India. Most died but enough survived and the rest (and why we have Assam and Ceylon tea) is history.

The camellias in my garden consist of two we purchased, one that came with the garden and one (the white one) that I liberated years ago from a nearby home that was going to be demolished. In the picture on the left is Camellia x willimasii ‘Donation”. On the far right there is a spent flower of Camellia x williamsii “Aunt Mavis’ (the earliest to bloom camellia in my garden) selected and named by my friend Alleyne Cook. In the middle at the top is the original camellia of the garden some sort of camellia japonica. I do not know what the white one is. But it is the white camellia that finally answered my question of why Alexandre Dumas’ (fils) novel The Lady of the Camellias is called so.

In The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas Fills translated by Sir Emdond Gosse and with an introduction by Toril Moi, Moi writes:

In chapter II we learn that Marguerite was called the Lady of the Camellias because she was always carrying a bouquet of camellias. “For twenty-five days of the month the camellias were white, and for five days they were red; no one ever knew the reason for the change of colour, which I mention though I cannot explain it,” the narrator (p. 15) disingenuously declares. The visible and public sign of Marguerite’s menstrual cycle, the camellias signify her sex and signal her sexual availability.

Camellias, moreover, are particularly fragile flowers; they quickly turn brown, and for a long time they were not terribly popular. One commentator claims that they were disliked because the flowers drop off intact “like the head of a man decapitated by a sword.” Thus the very name “the Lady of the Camellia reinforces the novel’s obsession with the connection between a woman’s sex and her death


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