National Gardening Week – The Camellia
12th April 2017
In a letter dated 2 March 1852, Mrs Gaskell wrote, “The old red camellia has seven flowers all out on it. Meta’s that AA gave her, has two-varigated single.” (Meta was Mrs Gaskell’s daughter. I don’t know who AA was.)
The two camellias in the present garden were in flower at the end of March when I took photos of them. They are still in flower now. The name of the variety is Comtessa Lavinia Maggi.
The plants are only three years old so still small, but the flowers are variegated, though not single. Maybe we need to go in search of a red to complete the match with Mrs Gaskell’s letter.
What is interesting is that Mrs Gaskell’s were in flower at the beginning of March, which suggests that the Gaskell’s were following the original practice of growing camellias under glass. When the shrubs were first introduced into Britain in 1792, carried by the ships of the East India Company, they were thought to be too tender to survive the British winter. Consequently they were grown in conservatories and it wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century that they started to be grown outdoors. Our camellias are grown in an open bed on the sunnier side of the house. The trees in the park and the street trees shelter the plants from the first rays of the morning sun which can damage frosted camellias flowers. Furthermore, like most city gardens, the ambient temperature is warmer than in more open gardens. The house itself must radiate heat out into the garden.
I visited the camellia house at Chiswick House, west of London, earlier this year. They are thought to be the oldest cultivated camellias in Western Europe, having been planted in their present position in 1828 for the Duke of Devonshire. When the glass house was restored in the early years of this century, the camellias, which had been in a very poor state, were nurtured back into health. For a month every year, from the beginning of March, the glasshouse is open to the public to view the camellias.
Which does seem to support the ideas that the camellias Mrs Gaskell wrote about in her letter of 2nd March 1852, were being grown under glass, like the ones at Chiswick House. We know that there was a glasshouse attached to the present house where the living room window looks out onto the garden and that it was heated by pipes from the kitchen below. Its position is marked by an area of gravel. One day maybe there will be enough money to cover the cost of re-instating the glasshouse. There’s a dream!
Volunteer Gardener at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House