Captain Rawes returns to Chiswick House

When I first worked in the BBC Radio Newsroom in the early ’80s a jaundiced old hack took me aside and told me I would never be a ‘proper’ journalist, because I’d never worked on a local paper and covered funerals and flower shows. I suspect he resented the intake of graduate trainees. I fear he is now getting his revenge from beyond the grave, for I am struggling to remember which of these flowers is a Camellia japonica and which is a reticulata, though Chiswick House head gardener Geraldine King was very clear when I met her to talk about this year’s Camellia show.

The Camellia Show at Chiswick House opened at the weekend, earlier than initially advertised because the weather has been so mild. This year the blooms are spectacular and more plentiful than I remember, which Geraldine says is because the conditions have been perfect – wet and warm.

What’s more, a long dead sea captain has returned to Chiswick House. Captain Rawes was the first Camellia reticulata to be introduced into Europe, named after Captain Richard Rawes of the East India Shipping Company, who brought the Camellia back for his friend Thomas Carey Palmer of Bromley in 1820. Chiswick House had one, but it died. Geraldine has been on a trip to Chatsworth House to get a replacement, which had just come in to bloom when I visited.

Photographs above: Geraldine picking up Captain Rawes from Chatsworth House and driving home with it; Camellia Reticulata ‘Captain Rawes’ in bloom

Visiting ancient and historic Camellias in Guangzhou

She’s also been to China to visit the original habitat of many of the 32 heritage plants growing in Chiswick House conservatory. Chiswick has what is thought to be the largest collection of heritage camellias under glass outside Japan and China. The original plants were brought here by sea, having been discovered by Victorian plant collectors. The 1831 Chandler & Booth plant catalogue has 32 types of camellia on sale, of which Chiswick House still has 16, so Geraldine is always on the look-out for these rare plants when she goes on her trips with the International Camellia Society.

She picked up a couple on her most recent trip, in October, which took her to Guangzhou to see ancient (more than 400 years old) and historic (over 100 years old) camellia trees. Going up into the mountains to see whole forests of camellias growing wild, was she said, like following in the steps of the original European plant hunters, experiencing the views they first saw 300 years ago: “Camellia forests intermingled with tropical plants and shrubs growing like weeds for miles! Amazing”.

Photograph above: Camellia forests intermingled with tropical plants

Retracing the steps of the Victorian plant hunters

The Chinese use Camellia oil like we use olive oil, so seeds from the Camellia semiserrata are big business. 80% China is covered in trees and the Camellia forests cover thousands of acres, providing much needed income for the rural population, producing skin care and cooking products. Although the forests aren’t under threat, the Chinese have lost many of their older species as they have focused on more modern varieties rather than their historic trees.

The meeting of the International Camellia Society agreed ways of protecting these trees, though the follow up meeting which was to have been held in Japan to ratify the agreement has been cancelled because of the Coronovirus outbreak. The International Camellia Society have a tradition of gifting Camellias to gardens they visit, so Geraldine and colleagues from Britain were able to give back to the Chinese a plant they’d lost.

Photographs above: Under the oldest Camellia Semiserrata; Camellia seeds; posing in a newly created Camellia Garden with a local farmer who works there; “leaving a little bit of me China” planting a gift from the UK. 

There are 216 species of Camellia reticulata and japonica, which have produced some 22,000 different cultivars. Chiswick House conservatory houses some of the oldest and rarest, so we are privileged to be able to see them.

Chiswick House Camellia Show runs from Thursday 27 February – Sunday 22 March 2020. Open every day 10.00am until 3.00pm – Last entry 2.45pm. Entrance to the show is free. Heritage and modern varieties are available to buy throughout the show.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Gallery of images from Chiswick House Camellia show 2020

See also: The Chiswick Calendar – Sipsmith community activism awards