Camellias – Everyone’s Cup of Tea?

Winter is upon us, and days with single-digit maximums are not rare.  On a sunny day, outside temperatures may reach twelve or thirteen degrees, making walks during the sunny period not unpleasant at all – assuming that there is no wind, of course.

Japan is home to a number of winter-flowering evergreens, and I will be looking at three of these which belong to the same genus – the camellia.

Technically, Camellia is a sub-tropical genus but it thrives in temperate climates, and Japan represents its northern-most limit.

As I write this, the sazanqua or Christmas camellia (Camellia sanzanqua) is in bloom.  The plant is also known by its Japanese name sazanka (山茶花).  Native to south-western Japan, it is a popular park and garden tree throughout the country.  Its leaves have been used in parts of western Japan to make tea-like infusions, and oil can be extracted from the seeds.

A sazanqua flower.

Sometimes confused with the sazanqua is the camellia or Japanese camellia (Camellia japonica).  In Japan it is known as tsubaki (椿) and is considered distinct from the sazanqua.  Conventional wisdom holds that the flowers of the sazanqua fall apart and drop in pieces; whereas in the case of the japonica, the whole flower drops intact from the tree – fans of Akira Kurosawa’s classic Tsubaki Sanjuro no doubt recall this.

An early-blooming camellia flower.

Movie poster for “Tsubaki Sanjuro”. In this movie, the ronin assumes the surname Tsubaki (椿), meaning camellia, and you can see the white camellias on the left.

Apart from its use as a decorative plant, the camellia is important as a source of oil.  This oil can be used for cooking (it has been described as “olive oil of the orient”) but is also widely used in cosmetics – camellia oil has been used for centuries as hair treatment.  My kids were prescribed pure camellia oil to help clear up a skin disorder, and camellia oil is also the preferred oil for treating swords and knives.

There are laws dictating how oil is labelled – only oil from the japonica is true camellia oil.  Oil extracted from the sazanqua must be labelled differently.


The last member of the camellia genus I want to look at is not a Japanese native, but is heavily entrenched in Japanese culture, and is economically important to the area around Tokorozawa.

Camellia sinensis has leaves similar in shape and colour to the sazanqua, and bears white flowers of similar shape, but much smaller.  In fact, it would probably be grown most commonly as a hedge if it wasn’t for the popularity of the drink made from its leaves.

That’s right – it’s the tea plant.

A tea flower.

I won’t go into the history of tea, suffice to say that tea – the plant known as chanoki (茶の木 or 茶樹) – was first planted in this area over a millennium ago.  It was apparently grown primarily as a windbreak – and vegetable plots are still often separated by hedges of tea – but over time the soil and climate of the Sayama Hills, Iruma River and Tama Hills produced a tea that has become one of the “big three” of teas (Uji, Shizuoka and Sayama).

Nuts of the sanzanqua (left) and tea (right). Oil can be extracted from either of these.

Sadly, fallout (or rumours of fallout) from the Fukushima No.1 reactor has contaminated some tea gardens in the area, which has damaged the sales of tea.  Several growers (some in operation for over a century) have gone bankrupt.  I hope the situation improves soon.

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