A Brief History of the Camellia

Many of our best-loved plants first entered the South in Charleston. Here’s the fascinating story of the camellia got through the region's garden gateway and to your backyard.
Steve Bender

An energetic Frenchman named André Michaux impacted Southern gardens more profoundly than anyone. Plant explorer and botanist to King Louis XVI, he established the South’s first botanical garden just north of Charleston in 1786. Now- familiar species he introduced sound like a Who’s Who of Southern classics―sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans), ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), mimosa (Albizia julibrissin), Chinese parasol tree (Firmiana simplex), and Chinaberry (Melia azedarach). One stands out above the rest―the common camellia (Camellia japonica).

Michaux presented camellias to his friend Henry Middleton, whose plantation, Middleton Place, sits just a few miles down the road from Magnolia. Begun in 1741, the plantings here claim the title of “America’s oldest landscaped gardens.” Symmetry, formality, and precise grooming define their look.

We don’t know exactly how many camellias Middleton received. We do know that he planted one at each corner of his parterre garden. Only one plant survives there today―a beautiful double red camellia called ‘Reine des Fleurs’ (“Queen of Flowers”). 

Today, hundreds of different camellia selections adorn Middleton Place and countless other Southern homes. With dense evergreen foliage, they thrive in light shade. But the voluptuous blossoms are what truly capture our dreams. Flowering in winter and spring, when many other favorites are still sleeping, camellias offer ruffled blossoms in glorious shades of pink, white, red, and even multiple colors. Merci beaucoup, Monsieur Michaux.