A great place to be on a chilly April morning is Bon Air Park on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, Virginia. Its claim to fame is its magnificent rose garden, which is lavish and has quite a history. But that is for another time. In April, it is good to take your cup of coffee to the park at about 7 in the morning and head for the path that I call Camellia Alley.
All along the way, as you climb the rise, then crest the hill, and make your way down the other side to the little park road, you will find variety after variety of Camellia japonica. As the name reveals, Camellia japonica originated in Japan where, according to the American Camellia Society, they are called Tsubaki, which translates as “tree with shining leaves.” They came first to England with tea, of course, brought by the East India Company. Now there are believed to be 20,000 varieties worldwide, 200 known in this country. Linnaeus gave the plant the name that we use in the West, Camellia, to honor a Jesuit priest serving in the Philippines, Joseph Kamel.
In Bon Air Park in the early morning, the slant of the sunlight on the buds and blooms and the drops of dew catching that sunlight combine to create a sight that is at once simple and sweet yet grand and elegant. It is a tough decision whether to stop and gaze at exquisite individual flowers for one breathtaking effect or to stand back and be stunned by the profusion of blooms on the profusion of bushes for another breathtaking effect. Either way, it is impossible not to have a grateful heart for the splendor of creation.
As beautiful as camellia bushes are in the garden of a well-tended yard, when they line a nature walk and imitate the look of a wild hedgerow, as they do at Bon Air, they are even more special. When I was a little girl, I had an Alice in Wonderland book with beautiful illustrations. I loved the page with the picture of the well-tended garden of the Queen of Hearts. I know that her painted flowers were supposed to be roses, but they looked like camellias to me. (Camellias used to be commonly referred to as “camellia roses.”) The flowers on the Queen’s bushes in the picture in my book looked like the camellias in our neighbor’s yard—and like some of the camellias at Bon Air, for example this one.
It is said that the Japanese do not use Camellias as cut flowers because, instead of the petals falling off one by one, often the whole head falls off intact. They consider that morbid. I think it is wonderful. The path is strewn at Bon Air with perfect examples under your feet of blooms just like the ones on the branches above, botanical gems scattered along the way.
The camellia in my yard blooms from January through March. What a terrific gift in winter to have those flowers. Because of the hybridizing of camellias, there’s one blooming somewhere at all times through the year. They are all colors, all sizes, all heights. In short, there is a camellia for everyone. And the camellias at Bon Air Park are something no one who can get there should miss.
Jenny Sullivan became a garden club member here in Northern Virginia, after retiring from 42 years of teaching English. She has authored two books in retirement, From My Father’s House, a southern novel click FMI here and The Purpose-Driven Life: A Children’s Catechism click FMI . Jenny will be teaching a course on Flannery O’Connor in the spring for Arlington County’s Encore Learning Program for Seniors.