The camellia in Pillnitz is around 230 years old and is considered the oldest camellia north of the Alps. It is almost 9 m high and 11 m in diameter. From February to April it is covered in carmine red flowers. During the cold season, the tree, which was planted at this place by court gardener Terscheck in 1801, is protected by a large glass house with stairs. During this time visitors can enter and view the tree from two levels.
In the mid 19th century Dresden became a European hot spot for the culture and breeding of camellias, and exported them to Russia as well as Italy and Spain. The camellia was viewed as a status symbol among European aristocrats, and Russians in particular, had a high demand for camellia flowers, which were exported in thousands to St. Petersburg and Moscow.
With growing popularity among Westerners, and contrary to its Far Eastern symbolism, the meaning of the camellia flower changed. Thanks to popular literature, most prominently La dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas from 1848, as well as real life personae, such as the “Wiener Cameliendame”, a dancer named Fanny Elßler, the camellia became erotizised!
On the other hand the longevity of the flowers, and particularly white camellia flowers, became associated with death and mourning and were woven into funeral wreaths.
The seeds of all known (about 200) camellia seeds yield a valuable oil, which smoothes the hair and juvenates the skin. The oil is rich in linolenic acid, and is also used in cooking and reduces cholesterine. Samurai rubbed camellia oil unto their sword blades to protect them from rust. The oil is also used as a natural surface finish for wood, as lube in watches and precision engineering and more.
Camellia wood is hard and durable and was used in the manufacture of weapons, different tools as well as kokeshi dolls. Up to the Edo period, a camellia rod was used in Buddhist ceremony to punish and drive out malign spirits. The wood also yielded a spark-free and, hence sought after charcoal.
Camellias are highly resistant against diseases and may contain different antibacterial and fungicidal agents.
Besides, the first Westerner to portrait a camellia flower was likely a Saxon gardener by the name George Meister. His book “Der Orientalisch-Indianische Kunst- und Lust-Gärtner” was published in 1692 in Dresden. In it he describes both the camellia as well as its crop plant, Camellia sinensis var. sinensis – the tea shrub!