An old saying in chanoyu states, “for winter use the camellia,
in summer the rose of sharon.” And in most winter season
tearooms, a camellia stem with a full but unopened bud and three
or five leaves is placed with another woody-stemmed branch in
a ceramic, bamboo, or bronze vase.
Early records of tea gatherings note these winter flowers with
characters ‘mountain tea flower” While not entirely
reference is assumed to mean Camellia japonica. Another, closer
relative to the tea bush named Camellia sasanqua, is normally
avoided in the tearoom precisely because of its more intimate
link with the beverage that is the focus of the gathering.
Since its introduction to Europe in 1739 by Joseph Camellas, over
500 varieties of the camellia have been identified and developed.
While the flower of the original tree is red, color variation
now ranges from white to pink to dark red as well as striated
blooms. Though superficial attention may render indistinguishable
many varieties, close observation of blooming season, color and
shape of the flower, and of the leaf and stamen cylinder will
reveal points by which specific plants can be identified.
The variety shown here is known as Bokuhan
(Companion in Simplicity) camellia. A single layer of deep
crimson petals surround the distinctive white “peony”
center. The deep green leaves are narrow and shallowly serrated.
Bokuhan camellias became well known for their
striking contrast of colors from the Edo Period (1615-1868),
and still today enjoy the highest regard. A variant of this
tea flower is named Bokuhan Nishiki (Brocaded Companion in
Simplicity). Here both petals and center are crimson red while
the petaloid center is even more pronounced.
When it begins to bloom, from January through March,
the flower displays a narrow, tubelike shape, and because of the
small size of the bloom, is used when partially opened. However
the fully opened form, when petals lay flat around the stamen,
is usually avoided in the tearoom. The growth habit is upright
and angular, with vigorous extension of its branches. This plant
may be found in Western nurseries under the name “Tinsie.”