The Botanic Gardens Sydney has an entire garden dedicated to showcasing spectacular flowers of popular Camellia cultivars and the Camellia is a widely recognised cultivated flower enjoying a long flowering period in old gardens all over Sydney. Every day millions of Australian enjoy a nice cup of tea made by steeping the dried leaf tips of Camellia sinensis plant in boiling water. Signage in the Camellia Garden tell us that horticultural staff of the Botanic Gardens Sydney voted the tea plant as one of ‘the top 10 plants that have changed the world.’
Tea plants were not part of the First Fleet plant cargo as the tea was still being imported from China and relatively expensive. Interestingly, tea drinking as a social past time in Britain really began when the Indian Camellia sinensis var. assamica discovered growing wild in India became cultivated in tea estates of India from 1839 onwards.
The camellia story in the Botanic Gardens Sydney, however, has another connection into the world beyond the garden walls in the form of research titled, the Camellia Project.
After admiring the camellias in bloom at the beginning of my tenure I was keen to learn what connection these flowers might have with new research. I met with key members of a team of scientists, geneticists and horticulturists involved in the project. They, along with local and overseas associates were cultivating new knowledge systems concerning sub-tropical and tropical species of Camellias. These were quite different to the temperate varieties such as C. Japonica and C. Sasanqua that we see in the Garden.
The artwork, From Jungle to Teacup (thankyou Dr Adam Marchant for the title) explores poetically the network of interconnection between the scientific institution of the Royal Botanic Gardens Herbarium, plant breeders and remote corners of the world. It endeavours to draw the visitor into the world of camellias and perhaps allude to the importance of systematic botany to plant conservation.
The centre of diversity of the Camellia is northern Indo-China, a tropical zone and it is believed that many species of Camellia are yet to be discovered, though in Vietnam Australian scientists have been at the forefront of new species identification. A purple flowering camellia was first described by French botanist J.B.L Pierre as Thea piquentiana and believed to have been collected in 1866. It was thought to be extinct because publications, herbarium records and endangered plant lists of Vietnam indicated that it had not being collected or sighted since this record.
On this basis and a previous unsuccessful hunt, a plant hunting expedition was mounted 2002 in the Dong Nai River Region of South Vietnam to search for the elusive flower. After a long and arduous trek almost by chance the plant was rediscovered in a jungle ravine. The flowers were found to be pink suffused with purple with overly large leaves (up to 550mm long.)
The Camellia Project’s research has highlighted the vulnerability of this and other newly discovered sub-tropical and tropical camellias. They are forest understory plants and thus are cleared along with the canopy of rainforest for settlement, farming and recreational purposes. The first plant discovered in the ravine had had branches cut off for firewood!
The Camellia Project highlights the importance of continuing work in plant conservation undertaken by The Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney. If the public supports the work to save these camellias we also save the remaining forests of Vietnam and probably yet other plant species.