Camellias combine classic beauty with creative innovation. After seeing one flower I was on a mission to find out more, and I was lucky enough to listen to an expert who shared some of his knowledge with me. I am not a botanist nor a camellia expert but I do know beauty when I see it and hers is an example.
Camellias originated in the East - they have always had a special place in the cultures of China and Japan. Some of us know of the Japonica camellia and the Sasanqua, but the best known to all of us is of course tea, camellia sinensis.
The Camellia plant was probably taken to Europe in the late 1500s by Portuguese traders, but they didn't come to these shores till considerably later. Some say it was the Macarthur family who brought them here, but I think there is evidence they may have come somewhat earlier in the 1830s.
The Macarthurs were pivotal in the establishment of the wool industry in Sydney but also keen on establishing beautiful gardens and plants. William Macarthur, their son, was a botanist and was very keen to introduce camellias in Camden Park in the 1840s. He is largely credited with propagating one of the most common hardy medium-sized informal double Camellia japonica. This is usually pale cream in colour with carmine streaks. Any patterned camellia is considered genetically unstable and as a result, there are many sports or mutations which emanate from it, hence its innovative nature.
He called the flower "Aspasia" and I was curious to see if there was a woman in the Macarthur family by that name but on further investigation, it became apparent that he had named it after Aspasia of Ancient Greece, who was a consort to Pericles as he had a fondness for Greek mythology and history. It has become one of the most enduring, as well as the first significant, Australian raised camellia.
Unbeknown to William, an Italian camellia grower by the name of Santarelli had already named a carmine pink camellia 'Aspasia', which had already appeared in European catalogues as early as 1840-4. Over a century later, in 1952, Professor E. G. Waterhouse, an authority on camellia culture, suggested that the Australian Aspasia be known as 'Aspasia Macarthur' to differentiate it.
From Aspasia Macarthur, there are so many cultivars which have developed such as 'Lady Loch', 'Margaret Davis', 'Can', 'Strawberry Blonde', 'Otahuhu Beauty', 'Jean Clere', 'Just Sue' and the (now rare) 'Camden Park', all sports from the 'Aspasia Macarthur' strain. I couldn't tell you exactly which sports I saw in the Botanical Gardens except that I remember seeing the names "Drama Girl" and "Bob Hope" next to one another. The permutations are really quite amazing and here are some examples of camellias which were laid out for us to admire, from the very large reticulated flowers to the doubles and the smaller slender blooms in varying colours.