Saturday, 27 April 2013

At their best now: Camellias

This year, as various interesting plants in the zoos gardens come into their best season, I will be writing posts on their natural (and garden) history. Kicking off the series, our Camellia Walk (between Twilight World and the Reptile House) has several large and old Camellias in full blossom. They started some weeks ago, but the cold spring has held them back.

The ornamental camellias grown in Britain are mostly hybrids of C.japonica, one of several hundred wild species (the exact number is unclear) that grow in South East Asia. Their showy flowers made them a target for ornamental gardens in Asia, and by the time Europeans came in contact with them there were numerous garden forms. With the rise of specialist growers and dedicated plant breeders, these have now expanded to well over 3,000 varieties.
As a group, camellias are almost all dedicated woodland plants, growing in damp, humus-rich soils with an acidic ph and low calcium content. They are mostly small to medium sized bushes or small trees, with large, waxy leaves. They have fairly large flowers, usually in shades of red or white, although some species, notably C.chrysantha, have yellow flowers.

In the UK many forms can be grown outside, especially in company with rhododendrons and other acid-loving woodland plants, but some of the best camellia gardens are in the south west, where the higher rainfall and milder climate suit them perfectly.

C.sinensis (tea)
The most important of all camellias though, and one of the most politically important plants in history, is the tea bush, C.sinensis. First cultivated in China over 3,000 years ago, it was first brought to Europe not by the British as one might guess, but by the Dutch, who imported the first shipment via their trading post on Java in 1606. The British were a little suspicious of continental habits, and the first tea to be sold to the public in Britain was advertised in 1658. When after the Restoration Charles II married Catherine of Braganza, who was Portuguese and addicted to tea, it became the fashionable drink for high society, and soon everyone who was anyone had to have their own tea supply. Tea cultivation was taken all over the British Empire, and vast plantations were established in India and Sri Lanka. As a result, tea consumption expanded as prices fell, and soon tea became the national drink. Despite the expansion of coffee shops in the UK in recent years, tea is still the national drink

This was of course a potential tax earner for the government, and governments were forever tinkering with the tax rate on imported tea – sometimes with unexpected results. Not the least of these was the creation of a vast tea smuggling network, which adulterated the leaves with almost anything, including copper arsenate and sheep’s dung. At its height in the late 18th century, more than 7 million pounds of tea was supplied by criminal networks, compared to a legal trade of 5 million pounds. This of course caused great damage to the financial interests of the East India Company, and to prevent it going bankrupt and owing the government around £1 million the British Government agreed to let them sell surplus stocks, which had been sitting in a London warehouse from some time and were getting stale, to be sold direct to the American colonies with a low tax rate of 3 pence per pound. This was on reflection, a mistake. Although the taxed tea would have been sold at a lower rate in the US than the smuggled goods, the colonies were so angry at having to pay any taxes at all levied by a government which had none of their representatives in it (also some of them were tea smugglers), that when the four first ships arrived at Boston they took direct action….

.The latest step in the story of tea in Britain as that we have finally started growing it in the UK. Tregothnan Estate in Cornwall was perhaps the first place in the UK to grow ornamental camellias outside 200 years ago and in 2005 began selling locally grown and produced tea to the public. Today, it can be found for sale in several London shops and also be bought online direct from the estate. The true tea plant is not especially hardy in the UK, but the tip of Cornwall has a climate very similar to Darjeeling, and so far the project is doing well.

(images from wikipedia)

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