The Scent of Camellias

Somehow or other everyone seems to have gotten it in their heads that camellias have no scent.  The reason is probably La Dame aux Camellias  in which novel, the dame in question always wore them to the Paris Opera, because they were scentless and would not trouble her tubercular chest.

While it’s true that the big and showy blooms of Camellia japonica don’t have any smell in particular, there are other families of camellas that do.  Camellia sasanqua is a bush with a prettier horizontal growing habit than the upright japonicas, and Camellia lutchuensis has a remarkable spicy odor, and then there’s Camellia rusticana. That also has some pretensions to a perfume and when you start breeding programs among those varieties, what do you get?

That’s right, the bane of Marguerite – a perfume.

You do have to pick and choose.  Camellia sasanqua seems to have the most frequently reported fragrance, the authors of The Fragrant Year claimed that they were often surprised to find how many of the camellias had smells, and they singled out Apple Blossom, and Maiden’s Blush for mention.  I myself haven’t had the best luck smelling camellias in bloom. When we used to go down to DC and visit in the early spring, I always made it my business to check out the local camellias and I never once came on any with a smell.  But this situation is changing.

If you go searching on Camellia Forest, you will now find the occasional variety with a scent.   They mention “Tama- Ikari” and another one that blooms in fall “Autumn Sunrise”.  The smells are variously described as gentle (for which you can read “faint”) but sometimes you surprising descriptions of fullness and spiciness, and even of Spring Flowers.  One cultivar called “Bob Hope” with apparently brash red flowers is said to smell like daffodils.

I’m hoping for a floral variation on tea myself, since camellias are relatives of the tea plant, once called Thea sinensis and now usually called Camellia sinensis.  I could definitely be up for that, a subtle flowery take on tea.  And there is the fact that quite a large number of camellias will now survive as far north as Zone 6!

Cultivation is another matter.  Growers toss up conflicting advice,  but from observation I can say two things.

One, camellias like acid soil and they tend to do well in the same places that azaleas and rhododendrons thrive.  It’s a pretty simple rule of thumb.

Two, camellias hate wind.

I don’t know what it is about them, but like the lady in the novel, they are fussy about drafts and are very good candidates for planting near foundations.  Particularly on the south sides of houses, you have to tuck your camellia in where the sunshine pools, or indeed, anyplace where the sun shines, and keep it out of the wind!  You will be rewarded with a marvelous gift of blooms at a time of year when nothing else is doing in the garden, namely November or February.

I can hardly wait, actually.  I’ve never lived anywhere that camellias would grow in before. I mean, I’m prepared to go to trouble for them, pay through the nose, water them, feed them, run errands for them, bring them pralines, pick up their fan if they drop it.

I’m not, however, making the slightest effort to domesticate them. Some relationships, as Margurite’s young lover discovered, are best left informal.

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6 thoughts on “The Scent of Camellias

  1. I was JUST reading a biography of Marie Duplessis, the real-life Dame aux Camélias! I also remember that in Once On Esplanade (Frances Parkinson Keyes’ delightful biography of New Orleans grande dame Marie-Louise Villere Claiborne) that the young Marie-Louise was roundly teased by her father and brothers for decorating a satin ball gown with camellias. Having never read Dumas’ novel (which would have been scandalous literature for a young girl in the 1880’s) she had no idea of the salacious significance of her floral choice. She never wore them again!

    In another one of my favorite novels, The Tokaido Road by Lucy St. Clair Robson, Koneko (“Little Cat”) — a courtesan of samurai birth — uses camellia oil to dress her long hair in the requisite sculptural style. When she goes on the run, she cuts off all her hair and leaves it on her father’s grave. The ronin samurai hired to track her finds it and falls in love with her simply from the scent of her hair. This prompted me to obtain some camellia oil from Caswell-Massey, and it does have a fresh, sharp, almost sour smell that makes the mouth water.

    1. Geishas could come from Samurai families? Really? I thought they were sold into it or bartered into it or something along those lines; daughters of defeated samurai one guesses. Who knew?

      And someone really wrote up Marie Duplessis? (The Girl Who Loved Camellias?) Surprised by that too. Read La Dame myself ages and ages ago and was quite confused by the story. I had it in my head that Dumas Fils might write some cracking yarn like Dumas Père, but where was my old buddy D’Artagnon? Instead this sad sad story of a sickly courtesan.

      And I like the detail of the camellia oil, they do still sell that, and I always wondered what it was for? Hair, of course!

      (The Hub is currently reading last year’s biography of Dumas Grand-Père, The Black Count, all very swashbuckling indeed.)

      1. You hit the nail on the head– the courtesan Cat is the fictional daughter of Asano, the disgraced lord so famously avenged by the Forty-Seven Samurai. In the book she voluntarily sacrifices herself to the life of an indentured “woman of pleasure” to financially support her widowed mother. Not sure this is entirely accurate, culturally or historically, but Cat is quite a rip-snortin’ action heroine– escaping the brothel and taking up arms to avenge her father’s good name, etc.

        The book on Marie Duplessis = “Les Grandes Horizontales” by Virginia Rounding. Also “Courtesans: The Demi-Monde in 19th Century France”, if you’re innarested. Duplessis certainly was a sad figure, and Dumas fils capitalized on her tragedy. Ah me.

        1. She sounds like a Japanese firecracker. As to Japanese history, pre-1900, mine is limited to whatever can be gleaned by watching The Seven Samurai and Rashomon. Dear me, what a philistine I am.
          Les Grandes Horizontales, OK, something to read for the history blog. A fascinating bunch of women, always wondered if Colette’s Gigi characters were based on anyone specific or were identikits?

  2. Thanks for your lovely blog post.

    I was really shocked to read Nancy Mitford referring to the scent of Camellias. I have never smelt them at all – and would love to.

    As you say I do have the complicated versions – certainly not Sasanqua which would be most unhappy in our frost.

    I hope you are now thoroughly enjoying your Camellias – but don’t feel that they need too much sun. Camellias can cope with quite a lot of sun – nor does the soil need to be acidic as long as it is neutral that will be fine.

    1. I’m pleased to hear that camellias do not have to have too much shade.

      Back when I was visiting DC on a regular basis, most of the camellias were huddled in the darker spots near houses, but if they can do with sun so much the better. Now I’ll have to find a really fragrant variety!

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