On identifying camellias.

I am sometimes asked to identify a camellia that someone has in their garden but doesn’t know the identity of. My usual response is along the lines of mmmmm, I’m not sure, it could be this, it could be that.

“But you’re an expert, I thought you’d know”, they say, combining disappointment and accusation, to which I say something like “the trouble with camellias is that the more varieties you get to know, the more possibilities there usually are when confronted with an un-named bloom”.

Then I get into my stride a bit and point out that the Camellia Register is a large book, with small print and almost no pictures, that there are two volumes of it plus two supplements and that it contains 90,000 names (I have no idea how many names it contains, any large figure will suffice), many of them synonyms or of extinct varieties.

I explain that of the 30,000 varieties currently in cultivation (I have no idea how many varieties are currently in cultivation, I doubt whether anyone does) I have myself only ever seen around 1000, many of them only once and a long time ago and that my memory is not what it was and it wasn’t so good then anyway.

Assuming that the enquirer is too polite to have made an excuse and left, I go on to explain that they are in any case unusually variable, with flower size, shape, colour, flowering time and anything else that springs to mind varying from season to season and from one location to another.

Needless to say, the enquirer, who by now is bitterly regretting ever asking, is convinced that I am hiding the shallowness of my knowledge behind a smokescreen of excuses. It is unusual to be able to give examples that I have seen, like Satan’s Robe not having anthers one year or Desire producing blooms of an almost uniform pink.

Realising that they don’t believe a word that I am saying, and uncomfortable with that, I will sometimes tell them to leave the bloom with me so that I can compare it with the thousands of pictures that I have taken over the years. Thus I get to spend an hour or two of my own unpaid time trying to find a convincing match, at the end of which I usually am no further forward and have to admit defeat. Sometimes I think I have found it and duly impart my diagnosis to the enquirer in the full knowledge that they think I am a fraud, an ignorant fraud, and that they can dismiss the name I have given them because it is surely wrong.

I used to work under a head gardener who if asked to identify a plant he didn’t know would say “It’s American Lilac”, pretty much whatever it was. Make something up, say it with confidence and without hesitation, and most people will go away happy. Misinformed, but happy.

2 thoughts on “On identifying camellias.

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