Camellia Craze

One associates the camellia more with the South than the North (at least I always have), but in the early and middle part of the nineteenth century there was such intense interest in the flower among the elites of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia that the term craze seems apt. Camellias are far from hardy up here, so the camellia craze coincided with a flurry of greenhouse building.  All around Boston greenhouses popped up in the 1820s and 1830s, each one producing a profusion of hothouse flowers for Yankee homes.  At an exhibition sponsored by the fledgling Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1836, Charles Mason Hovey, a local nurseryman and later a prominent horticultural publisher, showed 12 varieties of Camellia Japonica, one of which was named after him.

Herman Bourne, Flores Poetici, The Florist’s Manual (Boston, 1833); J.J. Grandville, Les fleurs animées (1847).

Another prominent Camellia enthusiast was Boston merchant Theodore Lyman, who commissioned Salem’s own Samuel McIntire to design a country house  for his property west of the city in 1793.  The Lyman Estate or “The Vale”, as it was called then and now, included not only the McIntire mansion (later considerably altered and expanded; you can see a great post on its later history and interiors here), surrounding grounds, and a beautiful carriage house, but also a chain of greenhouses.  The Vale remained the country seat of the Lyman family for over 150 years, and was conveyed to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England) in 1951.  Both the house and the carriage house are undergoing significant repairs at present but the greenhouses are open all year long, and I visited them last week, near the end of the annual “Camellia Days”.

The Vale in halcyon days, before its Victorian and Colonial Revival alterations (courtesy Historic New England) and last week, in the midst of roofing work.

There are four greenhouses at the Lyman Estate, the oldest one dating from 1804.  The “Camellia House” was built in 1820, right in the middle of the camellia craze in Boston.  I visit the greenhouses several times a year just to see the very established specimens within or for plant sales.  Even apart from the plants, the infrastructure is also very appealing, as is the juxtaposition of soft russet brick, Victorian steam fittings, and glass.  I have made it for the height of camellia season in the past, which is generally in February, but I was late in this busy year:  some of the camellias you see below are still blooming, but the general ambiance was one of faded glory.

The Camellia House is the last of the chain of greenhouses, so you go through glass rooms of tropical plants, fruit trees, succulents (!!!!), orchids, and then you’re there….

5 responses to “Camellia Craze

  • Priscilla Herrington

    Although it was considerably later than the Camellia Craze, I remember my parents taking me to the Flower Show in Boston. My father would always buy my mother a camellia corsage and me, a gardenia. I understood that camellias were for beautiful grown women – at least, that’s how he explained it to us!

  • Sarah Waldock

    Does anyone else know of a camellia that made it to become a tree? when we moved in, in 1966, the corner of the garden was occupied by a magnificent camellia tree, a good 6′ of trunk before it divided and this lovely glossy canopy starting about 8′ up. the whole thing is around 25′. The flowers are white with pink flecks and do not go to seed, though two branches produce red blooms, presumably long since grafted to the original bush. The house was built in 1897, could the bush have become a tree in that time does anyone know, or was it brought to the garden mature? there are some big old camellia bushes around, oldest house in vicinity is 1870’s [it was a new out of town development in the 1890’s] and I’m really curious. I’m in the east in England, we don’t usually get more than six or seven degrees of frost at worst, though it’s sad when a late frost turns all the flowers yellow and kills them in the bud.

  • julia fogg

    Yes, many camellias can grow to tree height if sheltered enough and. of course, the soil is the correct pH. Well done, Donna, such opulence, especially the corsgae and earrings, and such an opulent building – that’s the way to do it!

  • daseger

    Not in NEW England, but maybe in this new climate things will be different! It’s over 80 degrees here in Boston on March 21–much more like a July day.

  • Bernadette

    Lovely post Donna, lovely pictures.

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