Camellia sasanqua ‘Tago-no-tsuki’

There are three plants at Mount Edgcumbe, one labelled Camellia oleifera, two labelled C. sasanqua ‘Fukuzutsumi’, planted in 2006. They are all the same variety. I wrote a blog about them in November 2020, tentatively concluding that its correct identity was Camellia sasanqua ‘Fragrans’.

It is not. Nor is it C. sasanqua ‘Narumigata’, though it is often so labelled. Its correct identity is Camellia sasanqua ‘Tago-no-tsuki’, Tago Moon.

It has long seemed likely to me that it was imported into the UK, in all probability directly from Japan, and that it would have a name by which it was known in its place of origin. Renaming it with an English name would have been a common practice in the past, and not with a simple translation of the original but a completely new name. It had good scent, ‘Fragrans’ was an obvious choice. It was under the name ‘Fragrans’ that it was shown at an RHS show by Lt.-Col. L.C.R. Messel of Nymans, Sussex, in 1938.

The name ‘Tago-no-tsuki’ first came up a couple of years back when it was pointed out to me in Stirling Macoboy’s book as being similar and a contender for the original Japanese name. I Googled ‘Tago-no-tsuki’, and found almost nothing. There was a reference to it being in the University of Washington Arboretum in Seattle and I think there was an old black and white photograph of it. More interesting was a set of five more recent photos taken by a visitor to the park called Ross Bayton and uploaded to Flickr. I felt fairly certain I was looking at the same thing.

Since then, the ICS has started to populate the online version of the International Camellia Register with pictures and there is now a set for ‘Tago-no-tsuki’, taken by Sueo Takano, which again seem to be an excellent match. Subsequent correspondence with Mr Takano and the exchange of more and higher resolution images, has put the identity of this plant beyond reasonable doubt. Mr Takano showed my pictures to Mr Hakoda, president of the Japan Camellia Society, who has been studying sasanqua camellias for fifty years; he said that it was definitely ‘Tago-no-tsuki’ based on the characteristics of the flowers and leaves.

It is, by any standard, a very good variety. It is free flowering with pure white flowers of good size and substance with a strong scent. The foliage on the Mount Edgcumbe plant is neat and healthy and the habit is a wide spreading but upright bush, not sprawling like many of sasanqua varities. There are very old plants of what appear to be the same variety at Leonardslee Gardens and at Nymans, making it certain that it has been in cultivation in this country for perhaps a hundred years.

It appears to be widely grown, and in very well known gardens, but never under its correct name. I have seen it labelled as Camellia oleifera, C. sasanqua ‘Fukuzutsumi’, C. oleifera seedling, C. sasanqua, and Camellia sasanqua ‘Narumigata’ and have heard from other people of it being supplied as C. hiemalis ‘Chansonette’ and C. sasanqua ‘Jean May’. It is none of them, they all apply to distinctly different varieties. ‘Fragrans’ is the only name that perhaps doesn’t correctly apply to a different variety, but it seems to have been coined in 1938 for the purposes of showing the variety at an RHS show.

The history of how this situation came to be may never be unravelled, though there are clear historical references to the variety going way back into the mid 20th century and beyond. On the basis that the simplest explanation is the most likely, I would surmise that the plant that Yokohama Nursery were selling as Camellia sasanqua ‘Fukuzutsumi’ in the first two decades of the 20th century was in fact C. sasanqua ‘Tago-no-tsuki’. Some of the purchasers of it may have come to realise that the name was wrong and relabelled it as oleifera or ‘Narumigata’. Had it arrived as something else, no one would have relabelled it as ‘Fukuzutsumi’, yet that name is still quite firmly attached to it. As evidenced by my Google search result, C. sasanqua ‘Tago-no-tsuki’, at least as a name, is vanishingly rare outside Japan, making it very unlikely to have come up as a possible identity in the pre internet age. Equally, I have never encountered an old plant of “real” C. sasanqua ‘Fukuzutsumi’, which might have been expected if that was what the Yokohama plant was. There is more than one entry in the Register for ‘Fukuzutsumi’, including one for ‘Fukuzutsumi (Yokohama).

Norman Hadden, of Underway, Porlock, Somerset, records planting Camellia Sasanqua ‘Fukuzu-tsumi’, from Yokohama, in February 1923, just two months short of a century ago. That’s a long time for a plant as good as this one not to be called by its rightful name.

Flowers: Pure white, 8-10cm across when wide open, 7-9 petals, cupped at first then opening out flat. The odd bud, perhaps one in ten, will have a smudge of pink at the tip which remains as a pink mark at the tip of a petal when the flower is open. It appears that in full sun the flowers may remain cupped. The petals are usually to some degree creped and ruffled. Scent is typical sasanqua, musky, relatively strong. At Mount Edgcumbe it flowers in November and December, a little earlier than, but overlapping, ‘Narumigata’.
Stamens: 15-20mm, 90-105 in number. It appears to me that they develop better on plants growing in warmer/sunnier conditions and that in shade some of the filaments may be fused and the anthers imperfect.
Leaf length: 5-7cm, averaging around 6cm.
Leaf width 3-3.9cm, average around 3.4cm.
The leaves are relatively short and broad as compared to many sasanqua varieties and are often somewhat oblong, with straightish sides narrowing in abruptly to a blunt tip. In shade they are often flat either side of the midrib, turning up at the edges in a tea-plate profile. They are lustrous but not glossy, mid to dark green. In sun they seem to turn rather yellowish and curl inward, but still have the same shape when flattened out. The leaves become thicker and harder in sun. It may be that in sun the plants are often somewhat stressed and that if they were in good, moisture retentive soil with a generous, uncontested root run, they might remain looking more like the shade dwelling plants.

Mount Edgcumbe, South East Cornwall. Growing (since a nearby tree fell down) without an overhead canopy but shaded by trees for most of the day. Planted 2006 and labelled Camellia oleifera.

Set of images I sent to Japan

Pictures from three gardens in South East UK.

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