‘Incarnata’… my favourite camellia

As our celebrated camellias burst into life this month, Volunteer Garden Guide Ruth Todd shares her love of the Camellia japonica

Without any doubt, my favourite camellia is the Camellia japonica ‘Incarnata’, aka ‘Lady Hume’s Blush’. It is stunning. Its pink petals are arranged in tiers and as well as the historical collection in the Conservatory, it thrives outdoors including in my own garden from January through March.

Camellia japonica ‘Incarnata’ flowering in the Conservatory. Photo by Ruth Todd.

It was one of 16 early introductions from China in the 18th and early 19th centuries, some of which are thought to survive in Chiswick’s collection. It is featured in ‘Illustrations and Descriptions of The Plants’ (1831) by Chandler and Booth which looks at ‘Natural Order Camellieae and of the varieties of Camellia japonica cultivated in the gardens of Great Britain’. This book has exquisite botanical drawings and detailed descriptions of early introductions and those cultivated by nurserymen in this country. In addition, it lists 19 camellias grown from seed in Britain, six of which are in the Chiswick collection. The book can be seen online at biodiversitylibrary.org. There is also an original copy of the book at the RHS Lindley Library at Wisley.

Botanical drawing from ‘Illustrations and Descriptions of The Plants’ (1831) by Chandler and Booth

The entry in this book about Camellia japonica ‘Incarnata’ suggests that the outer petals are ‘a good deal recurved’ and diminish in size towards the centre and are pointed, giving it a hexangular appearance, as in the illustration above.

Seedlings of this camellia were brought from China in 1806 on the East Indiaman ship HMS Hope captained by Captain James Pendergrass (1767-1851) along with a cargo of tea and other goods. Given tensions between the French and the English during the Napoleonic wars, safe passage was not guaranteed, but on this trip it was just a skirmish. Plants had to be well cared for to survive the long journey.

Pendergrass gave the plants to Hope’s managing owner, Sir Abraham Hume (1749-1838) who had an estate with glasshouses in Wormley Bury, Hertfordshire, and his wife Lady Amelia Hume, née Egerton (1751-1809) who the plant was subsequently named after. The Humes were keen horticulturalists, known to cultivate rare and exotic plants. Sir Abraham was also a fellow of the Royal Society and an MP.

It is not known how Pendergrass was able to acquire this exceptionally beautiful camellia variety, as Europeans were denied access into China at this time.

Camellias have been valued as ornamental plants for centuries in China and Japan where they are native. In China camellias symbolize the union between two lovers. They were used to ornament porcelain, wallpaper and paintings. East India Company employees in the tea trade, who were interested in botany through Chinese contacts, were able to obtain plant specimens to send home and there were nurseries that would have cultivated plants such as camellias on the mainland.

The first known image of a camellia growing in Britain dates back to 1747 in a painting of a plant in the glasshouses of the famed horticulturalist Lord Petre at Thorndon Hall in Essex. It is believed that many of the early introductions were killed as a result of being overheated in these ‘stoves’, including possibly those at Chiswick. As expensive plants, camellias continued to be protected in glasshouses, although gardeners later realised the plant could thrive outdoors in milder climates. This was still the period of the Little Ice Age, 1560-1850.

In the archives we have a bill from 1828 for five unnamed camellias for the 6th Duke of Devonshire from Chandlers nursery in Vauxhall which are thought to be replacements for camellia plants he had bought earlier and may have died. William Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire (1790-1858) was a wealthy and keen horticulturalist and it was he who built up the Conservatory camellias at Chiswick.

Today, thanks to the dedication and commitment of three International Camellia Society volunteers, we still have camellias in Chiswick. The camellias in the Conservatory were badly affected by disease in the 1990s. London Borough of Hounslow asked the volunteers, Herb Short, Jane Callander and Marigold Assinder to ‘adopt’ and care for the plants. Through their care they brought them back to health and were gradually able to identify the camellias so that we mostly know their botanical names today. The plants were further boosted during the 2009-2011 garden restoration when the Conservatory was dismantled and renewed. The plants were left uncovered for many months which helped to control the pests and diseases.

Camellia japonica ‘Incarnata’ flowering in the conservatory. Photo by Ruth Todd.

Coming back to my love of the Camellia japonica ‘Incarnata’, Herb Short, by then the Chairman of the International Camellia Society, suggested to me that if I bought one of these plants, I might be disappointed that it would only flower in a weak shade of pink. But I’m pleased to say the plant I bought several years ago now sits just outside my front door and when it starts flowering at the beginning of the season the flowers are very pale but once the weather gets warmer the flowers become a beautiful shade of pink. I cherish this beautiful plant.

Ruth Todd February 2023