Identifying Camellias

Camellias began to arrive in the south and found their home in southern plantations in the latter part of the 18th century. There are discrepancies as to the exact date of the first camellias in the USA with several laying claim to the ‘First One’. There were limited varieties available, and it was not until the early 1900’s that camellias started making their way into the southern landscape. Camellias were a good fit into the southern United States with their ideal climate and soil. Again, the varieties were limited. Most of the new varieties that were added to gardens had to be imported from Europe. In the 1930s and 1940s, we started to see more and more new varieties popping up from seedlings originated in America.

As more of these new varieties emerged into the landscape, a major problem began to occur. The nomenclature (official names for varieties) was inconsistent. As new varieties spread from town to town, the names changed as well. A variety would be known as one thing in Savannah, GA, another thing in Charleston, SC, and something totally different in Gainesville, FL.

Our problem is identifying the literally thousands of ‘different’ camellia varieties that inhabit our old camellia gardens. Certainly, at some point many years ago, someone knew the name of a variety as they installed it in their landscape. It might have been one of their favorite varieties, and they had no need to put a label on the plant in order to remember its name. In many instances, there were labels on the plants, but over the years, the labels simply wore out and fell off. Some old camellias may have been severely pruned at some point in their life, with the labels accidentally being removed. As many of the original owners of these old camellias either moved away or died, new people moved into possession of these old camellias. Sometimes, the hands have changed so many times in ownership of the camellias that is impossible to tell who planted what. In any event, in our present camellia gardens, there exist many old varieties with unknown identities to their present-day owners.

Is it possible to identify these varieties after all these years of anonymity? In many incidences, there will be a likelihood that these camellias can be identified. However, because of the vast number of varieties that were registered over the years, unfortunately, some may never be identified even with dedicated efforts. Keep in mind that many varieties of camellias that gardeners in the past grew were seedlings from their own plants. Seedlings are different from the parent plant that they originated from. It is from seedlings that we get most of our new varieties. It is always a possibility that an old camellia in a garden may not have been a registered variety at all but was an unregistered seedling. In these incidences, we have a further challenge in trying to determine the identity of old camellias.

So, what is the answer if you are one of those many persons that have old camellias in your landscape and you want to identify them? The answer can become as exciting as the challenge itself. You may need to become a ‘Camellia Detective’. You can sort of think of yourself as a modern-day Sherlock Holmes in the camellia garden. You need to have an organized plan for doing your detective work successfully. In the next portion of this article, we are going to discuss some of the things that you should consider.

Building a Tool Box: Like with every good investigation, you will need certain tools to help you with your project. You will need good reference material to narrow your search down. Anyone interested in identifying their camellias should start with purchasing a current copy of ‘Camellia Nomenclature’ that is published by The Southern California Camellia Society. Also, purchase the supplement to the nomenclature book. Many old varieties are listed only in the supplement. Also, utilizing as many photo libraries of camellias as possible will help you with your investigation. A ruler to indicate bloom width and height is very important to have in your toolbox!

Temporary Labeling: If you have some unidentified camellias in your yard, the first step is to establish some temporary identification for your unidentified camellias. Put labels on each unknown variety to give it its own identity. For example, if your last name is Smith, and you have ten unidentified camellias, put a label on the first unknown camellia that says “Smith Unknown # 1?

Continue this procedure until you have labeled all of your unknown camellias.   Genes Nursery uses a numbering system with identifying camellias.  We give each plant a serial number of sorts.  We then take a picture of the bloom, the plant, and the leaves, which are all a very important part of identification.  We number the pictures the same as the plant number so we can refer to them in the future. We have found that the use of pre-numbered tags makes our job so much easier. These are pictured above. They are called Truck Seals. Google them to find sources including Amazon. By putting numbers on your unknown camellias, you can keep track of pictures and information until you finally identify the cultivar.

Record Book: The next step is to establish a record book for keeping any relevant information to your investigation. Probably the best record book would be a loose-leaf notebook. This would allow you to break up information with divider folders. Also, you could make copies of information that may pertain to your case, punch holes in it, and add it to the files. Or if you are tech-savvy you can use a digital spreadsheet or better yet- an online database. Airtable is a database we use quite frequently for various things like keeping track of our inventory and seedlings. I believe that you can also have a field for images which makes it super easy to keep up with your entire camellia database.

You want to record a lot of things about your camellia.

  • Bloom Size, shape & Color
  • Specific petal characteristics such as crinkles, folds, jagged edges
  • Variegation in foliage and/or in leaves
  • Blooming time
  • The location, sun, shade, wet, dry, etc.
  • Plant Growth Habits
  • Leaf Sizes, shapes, and colors
  • Differences in flowers on the same plant
  • Bud size and type (pointed, rounded, etc.
  • The average height, and caliper of the plant at the time you’re recording it.
  • Photograph all of these things for future reference

Any specifics you list in your record may help someone to figure out what you have or what you don’t have.

Photographing Your Camellias:

Camellia japonica 'Early Autumn'

Having photos of your unknown camellias is invaluable. With photographs of the varieties, you can ask expert advice on the possible identities of these plants even if they are not in bloom. In today’s digital world, you can purchase a digital camera for next to nothing.  With a computer, you can use digital photos for e-mailing them to camellia experts throughout the world.

Photograph not only the blooms but of the entire plant as well as the leaf structure.  The Facebook group “Camellia Care & Identification” is a very useful tool where you can upload your blooms pictures and hopefully, someone somewhere will get you the answers you need!

Researching History: You want to know as much about your camellias as possible. The age of the plant you’re trying to identify is a great tool in determining what it may or not be, especially if you’re trying to identify an old plant.  For example, if the plant you’re wanting to identify is 15′ tall, it’s highly unlikely that the plant is less than 10 years old and could eliminate a lot of possibilities.  Look for time-specific possibilities.

Consulting Camellia Experts: Consulting knowledgeable camellia experts will help you to narrow down your investigation. Camellia Nurserymen, Camellia judges, and longtime camellia growers can be very valuable with their assistance. A word of caution should be given. Many varieties exist today that look similar to other varieties. Don’t be surprised if you get several expert opinions that are different from each other. Simply, record in your record book that so and so suggested that this variety may be such and such. Narrowing down the possibilities is a major step towards identifying your camellias.

Visiting Camellia Gardens: Visit gardens where camellias are labeled!  Magnolia Garden in Charleston SC is a great place to start especially if you’re looking for older varieties.  There are lots of great gardens across the country that have camellias labeled.  Seeing this first hand is a great way to identify what you have!

Other Factors: Sometimes, camellias can be identified by examining their blooms, but in many cases, you will need to look further. Sometimes two varieties will have blooms that are almost identical, so you will need to examine more than just the flower. The foliage of a variety may be as distinct as the flower. Also, growth habits, and even the seed capsules of a variety may help you to determine its identity. Another factor that can be important when comparing similar flowers is the bloom season. Each variety has its own bloom season. If you know the blooming season of your possible identities, it may help you to further narrow down the possibilities.

Offering a Hypothesis: Sometimes, it may be obvious what your camellia variety really is, and other times it may be virtually impossible. In many instances, you can only offer a hypothesis as to the identity of your camellia varieties. It is all about narrowing down the possibilities and making our best guesses.

Identifying camellias is sometimes like reading a good mystery book. Sometimes, you don’t know what will happen until the end, and in other instances, you still don’t know. However, it is very important that we make the effort to solve these unknown mysteries through our research and investigation. Preserving as much of our knowledge and history about our camellias will make the identifying process much easier for the next generation of camellia growers.

Debbie Odom – Blackcreek Nursery & Garden