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Camellia - Not Just A Pretty Face

Camellia - Not Just A Pretty Face

We’ve just had the spring equinox, so brighter days are just around the corner. Speaking of corners, I spotted a huge Camellia tree that was fully in bloom whilst on lunch today, just near Shernhall Street, which prompted a bit of research.
They are native to China and belong to the Theaceae family, which also includes tea plants. Camellias have been grown for centuries for their beautiful flowers and for their oil, which is used for various purposes, including tool maintenance. More on that later.
The history of Camellias dates to ancient China, where they were used for medicinal purposes. The plant was then introduced to Japan in the 9th century and quickly became a symbol of love and affection. The Japanese developed many different varieties of Camellias and used them extensively in their gardens and for tea production.
'Above a single straw mat,
fluttering in the sunlight—
red camellia blossoms.'

Utagawa Hiroshige ca. 1840

The plant was introduced to Europe in the 18th century by the famous botanist Joseph Banks, who was part of Captain Cook’s ‘first great voyage’ on HMS Endeavor and was responsible for making Kew Gardens a leading in world botany under King George III. It quickly became popular among the wealthy classes.
One of the most interesting uses of Camellia plants lies within the oil that can be extracted from their seeds. In Japan, Camellia oil has been used for centuries to maintain and sharpen tools, particularly Japanese swords. The oil is rich in antioxidants, which help prevent the metal from rusting and protect it from wear and tear. It also acts as a lubricant, making it easier to sharpen the blades.
This makes it great for using when storing carbon steel kitchen knives, sharpening secateurs or using crean mates to get rid of any rust or sap residue. 
So it looks like we probably sharpen our Hori Hori  just like a Samurai. Who said gardening isn't cool?
In the UK, Camellias can be found growing in various gardens and public spaces as ornamental plants in gardens and parks. It's best to plant them in the ground in the Autumn, but you can plant them into pots during the spring, just make sure you keep them watered throughout the summer.
They require well-drained ericaceous soil, partial shade and are relatively easy to grow but frequent watering in the summer months is essential if you want lovely blooms the following year. No pruning required to promte flowering.
They also winter to spring, producing large, showy flowers in a range of colours from white to pink and red. Usually responsible for giving a bit of colour before anything else has woken up.