When winter enters the tearoom in November, the sunken hearth is opened, providing a warm and intimate environment in which to enjoy tea. Other changes accompany the opening of the ro hearth – the year’s freshly powdered green tea, the spicy scent of kneaded neriko incense, and in the tokonoma, camellias in bud.
Traditionally a white camellia with a branch of glistening colored leaves is the first tea flower of winter. The transition from flowering grasses to woody stems clearly marks the seasonal change.
At present over five hundred varieties of camellia are named, but several hundred years ago, distinctions were more simply put. White camellias fell into one of two classifications: those with round buds were ” White Jewel Camellias [Shiratama, 白玉] and those with pointed buds First Tempest [Hatsu Arashi, 初荒]. Today in the west, where resources to track poetically named varieties are rare and available camellia plants all too often bear names such as “ Hilda Jamieson,” or “Grand Slam,” the simplicity of this older system is appealing if not compelling.
White Jewel is the earliest camellia to bloom, from October through March. The name jewel suggests the absolute roundness of the buds, which emerge in limited numbers on the upright growth of its branches. As it begins to open, the single-petaled white bloom hugs inward but gradually spreads to a breadth of about four centimeters. The margins of the outer two or three petals are yellow-green. The stamen is short, broad, and pale yellow. The medium-sized elliptical leaves have indistinct veins and attach to the branch with short stems.
In contrast the First Tempest Camellia is distinguished by pointed white flower buds. It too blooms from October through March. At first the buds are tinged with incipient color, but turn intensely white as they open into a medium-sized cylinder that narrows towards the end. Its leaves are less glossy and more elliptical than those of White Jewel. They tend to be longer and the veins more clearly delineated. Some say First Tempest is the more striking of the two white camellias. A red variety of First Tempest also exists.