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.
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.
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)