Like their warrior counterparts in other countries, the samurai of old were keen to present a steely, harder-than-thou image to the world at large. However, in contrast to most military men elsewhere, they found no inconsistency in their formidable martial role and also engaging in such pursuits as writing poetry, collecting pottery and being rather fond of the tea ceremony. They were also given to flower arranging. In the floral world, though, there was one type of bloom that spelled anathema to those hardy combatants. Since characteristically the flower heads drop as a whole, rather than petal by petal—and that for the samurai bore an inauspicious resemblance to the ill fate of a decapitated head—they harbored quite an aversion for camellias.
Perhaps because in his long military rise to supreme power in Japan, he had seen so many of the camellia’s human symbolic equivalents, the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu, was able to develop an appreciation for the fine aesthetic attributes of the flower. His son Hidetaka, the second shogun, was an even more avid fan of the bloom, and Hidetaka collected rare varieties of camellia from all over Japan and had them planted in his garden at Edo Castle, which was his power base in the city now known as Tokyo. The shoguns’ camellia craze triggered a fad among elite samurai, who in Japan’s relatively peaceful Edo period (1603–1867), which was inaugurated by Ieyasu, were able to overcome their earlier antipathy to the flowers. Gorgeous catalogues presented the many types of camellia that could be collected, and one publication dating from 1695 indicated that camellia aficionados then had almost 200 horticultural varieties on which to feast their eyes.
Camellias are native to eastern and southern Asia, and there are around a couple of hundred different species. Camellias in Japan are most often seen in parks and gardens as bushes or clipped hedges, but they also grow wild in forests as straggly trees up to 10 meters high. The most familiar type of camellia in this country is known as tsubaki (Camellia japonica), and the most commonly seen color of the flowers is red with deep-yellow stamens, though varieties also include white, pink and streaked types. The Japanese name is thought to relate to the plant’s distinctive leaves, being believed to derive either from tsuyabaki, meaning “glossy-leaf tree,” or from atsubaki, meaning “thick-leaf tree.” In Chinese, the camellia is known as cha hua—“tea flower”—which is appropriate since the plant that supplies us with tea, Camellia sinensis, belongs to the same genus.
Though samurai at one time may have looked askance at camellias, the quiet, distinct beauty of the shiny, evergreen, oval leaves in stark contrast to the deep-red blossoms has meant that the flowers have always been integral to the culture of Japan. Camellias appear in ancient chronicles and stories, and in poems the long-blooming flower symbolized the lengthening spring day. The camellia was used as a design motif in architectural decorations and on costumes for the noh theater, and it is also highly regarded in ikebana flower arrangements, particularly those used to accompany the tea ceremony.
The camellia, though, is more than just a pretty face. The fruit of the plant, which resembles a miniature apple, contains three nutlike seeds, which, when pressed, yield an oil that is used both for cooking and as hair oil. In former times, the stems and leaves were burned to produce a type of purple dye. The wood of the camellia is hard and has long been employed in making various implements. There is also a military connection with the camellia, though somewhat different to that noted at the beginning of this story. The Nihon Shoki, completed in 720 and the oldest official history of Japan, relates how Emperor Keiko, the legendary twelfth sovereign of Japan, went into battle against his enemies in Kyushu, southernmost of Japan’s four main islands. Rather than resorting to standard weaponry, he had his bravest soldiers cut down camellia trees and fashion mallets from the wood. And such was the power of the camellia that the indomitable mallets dispatched all the foes to a man.
David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.
This article first appeared in the March 2014 issue of the Japan Journal. First published on TJJ ONLINE in March 2019. Updated with additional photo March 2020.