The first time I saw a Camellia I was charmed instantly. Walking through my grandmother’s neighborhood in Georgia one day, trudging along through a particularly dreary winter – there – I saw it and stopped dead in my tracks. Color? Flowers?
I rushed back to tell my grandma all about it. She wasn’t impressed. An avid gardener herself, she knew immediately the plant I was referring to. “Are you talking about the Camellia?,” She asked. “Those stupid plants. They’re stupid. They bloom too early and then their blooms just fall off!” she laughed.
My grandmother was not the only one who shared this sentiment. It has been said the samurai were not fond of camellias either, for they much preferred the slow drifting sakura blossoms to the sudden drop of an entire camellia bloom, which too closely resembled beheading.
Others see the romance in the way the flowers’ male and female parts stay connected upon wilting, symbolizing eternal love.
Camellias are native to Eastern and Southern Asia, most notably China, Japan, Korea, India, and Indonesia, and are evergreen.
The Rose of Winter, as it is sometimes called in folklore, has thousands of varieties and many tales associated with it.
One popular variety of camellia throughout time is the Camellia sinensis. It is a species within the genus camellia and is part of the Theaceae family. Do you know what beloved beverage is produced from this plant? If you guessed tea you are correct! The Chinese legend of how tea was discovered is a popular tale. For more fascinating information be sure to check out our Tales of Tea – Zoom class with Adult Education Manager Alexandra Cantwell this April!
Yosoji’s Camellia Tree
A long time ago during the period of Emperor Sanjo, an unlucky time began. A plague broke out and two years later the Royal Palace was burned down. Another fire broke out in the new palace and the emperor gave up his throne the next year. He handed his office to Prince Atsuhara who became known as the Emperor Go Ichijo. The time that Go Ichigo ruled – about 20 years – was one of the absolute worst in Japanese history.
A time filled with wars, fires, and plagues.
Things were worse than ever before. In 1025 the worst outbreak of smallpox came, there was hardly a village or town in Japan that was left untouched.
It was at this time that the Goddess of the Great Mountain Fuji graces our legend.
There was a boy named Yosoji who lived in a village that was ravaged by the plague. His mother was taken with disease and his father had long since passed. The sole responsibility of the household fell on young Yosoji’s shoulders. His mother grew worse day after day . . .
Bewildered and afraid, Yosoji decided to consult the famous fortune-teller Kamo Yamakiki. Kamo Yamakiko told Yosoji there was only one chance for his mother to be cured – and it was up to him to be courageous enough to follow through.
The fortune-teller instructed the boy – “If you go to a small brook which flows from the South Western side of Mount Fuji, there you will find a small shrine near its source. You may cure your mother by bringing her water from there to drink. Be warned Young Yosoji the place is full of dangers from wild things and you may not return or even reach this place.” . Yosoji decided at once that he would start the journey the following morning. He thanked the fortune teller and set off for home.
Early the next morning, Yosoji departed. It was a long and arduous walk. One he had never taken before. But he trudged on with an urgency in his chest.
Around midday, Yosoji arrived at a place where three rough paths meet. He could not decide what path to take. One might say our dear Yosoji was at a crossroads. As he stood there, puzzled, a beautiful girl dressed in all white emerged in the forest. Yosoji felt the impulse to run, but the girl called him in ‘silvery notes’ saying “Do not go. I know what you are here for. You are a brave and faithful son. I will be your guide. . . the waters will cure your mother. Follow me without fear, though the road is dangerous” The girl turned and Yosoji followed. .
The two travelers continued on in silence for miles. Upwards and into deep gloomy forests. At last, they reached the small shrine. There tinkled a silvery stream, clearer than any Yosoji had ever seen.
The guide in white tells Yosoji this is the stream he has been searching for. She instructs him to fill his gourd and drink. Yosoji does as he is told. He drinks the water and fills his simple gourd.
Yosoji and his guide traveled much faster upon their return trip, as the path was all downhill.
Once they reached the place where three paths meet, Yosoji bowed to his guide in gratitude. The guide tells Yosoji it was truly her pleasure to help him, as he is a dutiful son. She then tells him that in 3 days time he will need more water for his mother. She promised to again be his guide.
Yosoji asks if he may inquire about the guide’s true identity. The guide refuses. Yosoji bows once more and goes quickly on his way.
When he arrives home Yosoji finds his mother’s condition has worsened. He gives her a cup of water and tells her about his adventures.
During the night Yosoji gets up from bed to tend to his mother. He gives her another bowl of clear water. The next morning, Yosoji is relieved to find that she is doing much better! He gives her three more bowls of water and sets out to meet the figure in white once more.
His guide is waiting, as promised, at the place where three roads meet. The guide can tell from Yosoji’s face that his mother is on the mend. She instructs Yosoji to follow her once more and tells him that he must take 5 trips in all to carry the freshwater to his mother and fellow villagers.
Yosoji takes the trip 5 times. At the end of this 5th trip his mother is healed, and so are the villagers of Yosoji’s town. Everyone is thankful. Yosoji is celebrated as a hero and everyone is curious about the guide in white robes. Many had heard tell of the shrine of Oki-naga-Suku-neo, but no one knew where it actually was or would have dared to go on the journey.
Amidst all the jubilation young Yosoji is troubled. He knows all of his success is owed not to him, but to his guide. He feels in his heart that he has not shown her sufficient gratitude.
Driven by his curiosity and desire to give thanks, Yosoji sets out to pay a final visit to the sparkling waters. He knows the way well and does not stop at the place where the three paths meet. He continues on, dutifully, towards the shrine.
This was the first time Yosoji has traveled the path alone, and he is afraid. The forest is mysterious, gloomy, and dark. Mt Fuji looms in the distance with a great presence.
Despite his fear, Yosoji is determined and full of heart and so he continues onward, toward the great mountain, and finally, our young hero arrives. He stands at the shrine and discovers the stream is dry! There is not even one drop of water left.
Yosoji falls to his knees in despair and prays fervently that his guide might reveal herself.
Yosoji rises and sees her before him! He quickly bows low to his guide.
The guide chastises Yosoji, telling him that he was wrong to return and that this place is of great danger to him. She reminds him that his mother and the villagers are cured, therefore there is no longer reason for him to come.
Yosoji pleads with his guide, telling her that he has come to give thanks. He even dares to ask the guide’s identity.
She tells Yosoji that revealing herself is unnecessary, that she is glad he is thankful, but the spring is now dry as it has no current use. She bids Yosoji Farewell.
The beautiful guide swings a wild camellia branch overhead and a cloud appears from the top of Mount Fuji, enveloping her in mist. It is at this moment Yosoji realizes not only that he loves his guide, but her true identity as well. She is no less than the great Goddess of Fujiyama. Yosoji falls to his knees once more in prayer to the great Goddess.
She acknowledges his prayer by throwing down the branch of a wild camellia.
Yosoji carries it home. He plants the camellia branch and cares for it deeply. The branch grows tall and people come from all around to admire its healing beauty.
In Popular Culture
Coco Chanel is known for her love of the charming camellia’s beauty. Chanel still showcases the white ‘Alba Plena’ variety.
Yes, this plant has been cherished by many over the years and is adored and is beloved by bees and butterflies alike. You can admire some of the antique varieties in Norfolk Botanical Garden’s collection around mirror lake. NBG has over 1,700 different camellias growing!
You can find Camellia japonica near friendship Pond, or try a fragrant pink variety in the beautiful Hoffheimer Camellia Garden. You can also find the weeping graceful varieties known as “mermaid tails” there. I learned from Adult Education Manager Alexandra Cantwell’s delightful Walk & Talk that the best time to prune is right after a cold snap and these adored blooms prefer filtered light from canopy coverage.
I hope these tales & tidbits have piqued your curiosity to learn more!