I was lucky when I bought my place in Longoio back in 2005 to also have two ornamental trees included in my small garden: a Japanese maple, which turns a flaming red in autumn and an evergreen camellia which, come wind and rain, produces red and white flowers by February. This year, the flowers have arrived later because of the cold weather and only now can they be appreciated in their loveliness. To see the camellia bloom after the monotone rigours of winter truly brings hope into one’s heart.
Camellias originate in eastern and southern Asia and were introduced into Europe during the eighteenth century. The tea plant is a member of the camellia family and, indeed, the expansion of the tea trade enabled many new varieties to be brought into Europe. Hybridization did the rest.
Every March at Sant’Andrea di Compito, by the slopes of the Monte Pisano, south of Lucca there is a camellia festival where one can fully appreciate the variety of flower forms and colours of this perfume-less plant. A shuttle bus takes you to the camellias – the only way to get there as the narrow roads would soon be clogged up with private cars! The camellarium is spectacular at this time, the mill-stream walk is delightful, the exhibitions are most informative, there are many stalls selling local products and there are also musical events. (Last time I heard a delightful recital on the harp)..
But why choose this area for camellias? The fact is that the climate is ideal for them. It was the English ex-pats of the nineteenth century, escaping from the torrid summer of the Tuscan plains, who discovered this and introduced the camellia to these hills. Indeed, dotted around the Compitese are many aristocratic villas complete with their luscious camellias and there is even a society dedicated to old varieties of camellias in Lucca province.
If you fancy your cup of tea not only can you buy delicious camellia tea but you can have the ultimate Italian invention: camellia-tea flavoured ice-cream!
Here is my little humble camellia tree as I saw it this morning together with other valiant harbingers of spring from our garden: