Australia’s First Camellia?
My answer on first assessment is most likely no, but then again maybe yes, but it certainly was there at the early genesis of camellia breeding in Colonial Australia. I’m referring to Camellia japonica ‘Aspasia Macarthur’. Her journey and namesake, has criss-crossed the oceans and lands from Australia, China, England and Europe for four centuries creating one of gardening’s most intriguing stories.
Its like camellia lucky dip. These flowers are all from the one plant in Graham's garden. Camellia Japonica 'Aspasia Macarthur'. Photo Linda Ross
I’ve loved this gorgeous camellia since I was sixteen when I first saw it on the floral display bench at Camellia Grove Nursery at St. Ives, NSW. A pure white, double peony form floral class bloom with an outer circle of petals and an inner group of white petaloids and stamens clustered haphazardly in the centre. I noticed one of the three blooms on the display had a distinct pinkish-red splash or spot. I asked the nursery owner, what it was, and he told me it was common for this variety to revert with more or less pinky-red splashes on the petals of some flowers, with the odd all pink or red flower. This had resulted in many other of its ‘sport’ varieties being separately named, and although I wasn’t quite sure what that meant at the time, it seemed a fascinating behaviour for a plant.
When we were looking at buying our present house in 1985 I remember crawling under the privet and undergrowth trying to discover the extent of the rear garden. I popped my head up to see a magnificent mature C. j. “Aspasia Macarthur’ in bloom…what a joy! How lucky could I be? We bought the property as much for the few garden specimens as the house itself. We were about to start filming a new television program called Garden Australia for ABCTV and for the first time it would be based in a real garden not in a studio and the remaking of the garden from wilderness suited our philosophy for the show.
Camellia japonica ‘Aspasia Macarthur’ at Elizabeth Farm, June 2015. Photo: Anita Rayner © Sydney Living Museums
An intrepid journey
Camellias were first thought to have arrived on-board the SS ‘Sovereign’ in 1831. According to the ship’s inventory, they were all destined for Elizabeth and John Macarthur’s home and garden at Camden Park in Southern Sydney for their camellia-obsessed son William. In more recent times, it has been discovered that they may have in fact arrived earlier. Superintendent Charles Fraser imported four camellias in 1823 and was growing them at Sydney’s Botanic Gardens. Meanwhile, the NSW Colonial Secretary, Alexander Macleay was also growing a number of camellia cultivars, imported from England in 1826, in his extensive garden at Elizabeth Bay House.
Many years prior to this, in a parallel gardening world, dried specimens of the Australian (New Holland) wildflower waratah, Telopea speciosissima, were dispatched to England in 1791. Bearing its aboriginal name, Warrata’h, Sir Joseph Banks received his first live waratah plant from Old Sydney Town in 1797 and later, in 1801, a box of living plants. The first waratah to flower in a private garden in London is thought to have occurred in 1808 and the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, under King George 111’s patronage and Sir Joseph Banks’ direction, was also growing ‘Warrata’h’s’ in their hot houses in 1810.
The first camellias from China, to be grown and flowered in England, date from 1792. But one, introduced in 1806, later flowered with a striking similarity to the red bloom of the ‘Warrata’h’ and was instantly dubbed the ‘Waratah Camellia’. The ancient exotic language of the NSW Eora Nations of People had travelled across the seas to be linked to a Chinese camellia with beautiful informal red flowers.
Anemone-Flowered or Warrata’h Camellia. Illustration by S. T. Edwards, Curtis Botanical Magazine, vol. 40: t. 1654 1814. Image courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden, www.botanicus.org
As accuracy and botanical Latin ruled the then horticultural world, it would later be formally named C. j. ‘Anemoniflora’, inferring its flower was similar to the better-known anemone bulb, instead of the rarer Australian wildflower. But this was not to slow the fame of the Waratah Camellia. The famous Chandler father and son team, working at the Vauxhall Nursery in London, purchased one plant of C. j. ‘Anemoniflora’ in 1819 and turned the unique qualities of the ‘waratah looking’ camellia flower into a breeding parent. By 1825, they had created seven beautiful new hybrids.
The journey for the Waratah Camellia was not over. As one of the camellia hybrids included on the list cargo on the 1831 HMS ‘Sovereign’, it dropped anchor in Sydney’s Port Jackson destined for William Macarthur’s breeding frenzy.
By 1845 young Macarthur had produced between 5-800 camellia seedlings, many sourced from C. j. ‘Anemoniflora’ breeding and other cultivars obtained from England. The circle was slowly closing on the research into Australia’s first camellia.
Camellia japonica ‘Anemoniflora’, commonly called the ‘waratah’ camellia, at Vaucluse House.
The camellia is an original planting, thought to date back to the Wentworths’ occupation in the mid 1800s. Photo: Scott Hill © Sydney Living Museums
What’s in a name?
In 1850 William Macarthur noted, in his own handwriting, a list and description of his hand bred camellias numbering 62 varieties (or 69 depending on the source). The first in this list (# “1/50”) was called, ‘Aspasia’, featuring “light flesh colour, with a few splashes of crimson and pink. Three rows of outer petals, large, thick and well formed: inner petals more rounded and twisted. Moderate size. Very handsome.” One of its parents was no doubt that famous, and most sought-after camellias - the Waratah Camellia, C. j. ‘Anemoniflora’.
The late Colin Mills wrote in his extensive Hortus Camdenensis, the plant sold today as C. j. ‘Aspasia Macarthur’ “should perhaps be considered an improved form” as he knew of three trees in Australia in excess of 100 years old that “bear flowers subtly different from younger trees.” Colin says “the flowers are smaller, have a ground colour closer to the ‘light flesh’ described by William Macarthur, rather than the creamy-white of more recent plants, and fewer splashes of crimson and pink.”
In a strange twist of fate, Macarthur didn’t immediately publish his named list, which the Bureau of International Plant Nomenclature demanded in the new rules for acceptance of a cultivar name. Macarthur’s camellias were first documented in the Australasian Botanical and Horticultural Society report of 1849/50. No doubt isolation played a role in this. Confusion reigned for many years as an Italian breeder released another camellia called ‘Aspasia’ in 1853 and, as it was published first, had naming precedence over Macarthur’s plant.
Prof. E.G. Waterhouse, founder of the Camellia Grove Nursery at St Ives and the first president of the International Camellia Research Society, later recommended the slight name clarification, ‘Aspasia (Macarthur, 1850)’. This has over time been contracted to ‘Aspasia Macarthur’.
Camellia breeding was happening across the world at an incredible pace; faster than breeders could register their selections, and we now know C. x ‘Aspasia Macarthur’ has many synonymous names. These include ‘Pomponia Improved’, ‘Flore Celeste’, ‘Aspasia Nova’, Italy’s ‘Aspasia’, ‘Paeoniaeflora (USA) and ‘Makade (China). The sports from C. ‘Aspasia Macarthur’ identified in Australia, New Zealand and America comprise an impressive list, including ‘Otahuhu Beauty’, Strawberry Blonde’, Glamour Girl’, ‘Can Can’, ‘Just Sue’, ‘Jean Clare’, and Margaret Davis’ and the rare ‘Camden Park’. But because ‘sporting’ or mutations were occurring simultaneously across the globe many synonymous names appeared in catalogues in different parts of the world. These include ‘Duchess of York’ and ‘Elizabeth of Glamis’ for C. j. ‘Lady Loch’.
So, in conclusion, I believe it is correct to name C. x ‘Aspasia Macarthur’ as Australia’s first locally bred camellia variety and be proud that she sent her genetic material across the globe for gardeners to enjoy worldwide.
Graham's lovely 'Aspasia Macarthur' and its distinct pinkish-red splashes. It is common for this variety to revert with more or less pinky-red splashes on the petals of some flowers, even the odd all pink or red flower. Photo - Linda Ross
Our home garden plant is a tough old girl, dating from around 1920. She always suffered from excessive morning sun, which burnt her white blooms so I decided to move her to a shadier position in 2010. I trimmed her by 25%, root balled and replanted with only seaweed as a supplement. It was a success - possibly too successful - and in 2014 I pruned her back by 60%. This time I applied Kahoona fertiliser and watered regularly with Harvest solution. In the following summer it made substantial new growth especially from the base, regrowing lower branching lost 15 years earlier. In winter 2015 it has flowered profusely again with those magnificent blooms William Macarthur first witnessed at Camden Park 165 years ago.