Article and photos by Katherine Wagner-Reiss

1953-1748*A Camellia sinensis. This common tea plant was received in 1953 as a seedling. Notice that the first four numbers of each plant label tell the year of accession.

Camellia sinensis: shiny capsular seed pod. Insert shows a cross-section of the trilocular capsule with a brown seed in each locule. (PD-US-expired).

The leaves of Camellia sinensis are the source of all true teas: black, oolong, green, and white teas. Appropriately, Camellia is in the tea family, Theaceae. (Teas made from the leaves, flowers, bark, etc. of other edible plants are called herbal teas.)

The epithet sinensis means of/from China, which makes perfect sense since this plant is native to China. What does not make sense is why Linnaeus named the genus Camellia after George Joseph Kamel (Latinized surname Camellus), since Linnaeus was reportedly not a fan of Kamel’s botanical work, and there is no historical reason to believe that Kamel ever even saw a camellia.

Kamel was a Moravian Jesuit lay brother; he became an apothecary and by extension a botanist, since the medicines in his day were procured directly from plants. In 1688 he was assigned to Manila where he set up a respected pharmaceutical clinic including a botanic garden; he treated both authorities and the poor. His 96-page description of Philippine plants was published as an appendix to John Ray’s Historia Plantarum, unfortunately without his botanical drawings, thus lessening the value. Kamel sickened and died in Manila at the age of 45.  Evidently, Linnaeus did not think much of this botanical work dismissing it with the words: “Descriptiones imperfectae.”  There is no record that Kamel ever travelled to the Asian countries where camellias are native, and camellias were not planted in Manila gardens of the time, leading to the conclusion that Kamel never had the opportunity to see a camellia.

We, however, are lucky enough to be able to see camellias at the Morris Arboretum. A floriferous evergreen Camellia sinensis shrub can be found slightly off the beaten path, across the walkway from the late George Sugarman’s colorful painted aluminum sculptures in the Azalea Meadow. Blooming in October and November, its scented white flowers are dominated by over a hundred yellow-tipped stamens. And the leaves are of interest year-round since they are not only the source of your Lipton or Tetley tea, but were also the source of much of the friction in both the American Revolution (remember the Boston Tea Party!) and the Opium Wars (1840–1842).

P.S. Camellia sinensis, native to China, should not be confused with Camellia japonica, an ornamental camellia not generally used in making tea. Both species are grown at the Morris Arboretum, C.  japonica blooming from November through April.

Katherine has her Certificate in Botany from the New York Botanical Garden and is a botanical tour guide and free-lance writer.

Camellia sinensis leaves and flowers. The toothed leaves are the source of true tea. The flowers are similar to those of Stewartia, Franklinia, and Gordonia, also members of the tea family.

Marmota monax (groundhog, woodchuck) at the Morris Arboretum. Linnaeus created the genus name Camellia, and he was also the first to scientically describe Marmota monax.