Cornish estate steps in to save monk’s camellia

by William Hollingworth

Kyodo News

LONDON — An ailing Buddhist monk from Kyoto, who was concerned his rare collection of camellias could be threatened in Japan, is “thrilled” after they found a new home at a British country estate.

The 85-year-old, in ill health with dementia, feared that once he passes away his house and beloved garden could be demolished by developers.

He contacted his British friend and artist Rebecca Salter to try and find a suitable location in England for his shrubs, which have come from cuttings he has taken all across Kyoto.

Salter, who wants the monk to remain anonymous given his condition, said in a telephone interview in early October, “I knew him when I was a student in Kyoto in the 1980s. When I went home for a holiday he came over to England.”

“In that rather slightly overromanticized way of some Japanese he decided that, following visits to the British Museum and National Trust properties, Britain valued old things in a way that Japan didn’t.”

When Salter visited him several years ago, the monk instructed her to find a garden in England that would be prepared to take cuttings from his vast collection of ancient camellias.

“I thought it would be a terrible waste if he died and they flattened his home and turned it into a car park. I felt a terrible sense of responsibility to find somewhere,” said Salter.

The artist, who makes regular visits to Japan, called several large gardens and the Tregothnan estate in Cornwall, southwest Britain, agreed to take some cuttings.

The private botanical garden is home to Britain’s first tea plantation and has many endangered species of trees and shrubs.

The estate’s gardening director, Jonathon Jones, went to the monk’s home on a stopover in Japan in 2006.

He had about five hours and toiled through the night to take all the cuttings from the evergreen shrubs.

Now, the collection is doing well at its new Cornish home under the watchful eye of John Price, who is a volunteer at Tregothnan and a member of the International Camellia Society.

Since they arrived in 2006, the 70 plants, including 35 varieties, have been grown in the propagation house and are now up to 1 meter high.

Price is trying to match the camellias to the names he has on a list that was given to him by the monk.

They are all from the spring-flowering Japonica species and the vast majority of the varieties are not ones found in England.

“This is a Japanese collection of old historical varieties and it doesn’t bear a great deal of resemblance to camellias currently on sale here,” said Price.

He attended an international camellia congress in Kurume, Fukuoka Prefecture, in March, and has visited gardens in Kyoto to try and identify the varieties he has at Tregothnan. He hopes to have names for all the different plants by 2012.

“At Tregothnan, we plan to create an area dedicated to the camellias from the temples of Japan, and these shrubs from Kyoto will form a major part of the collection. The monk wanted the collection to outlast him and he will get his wish,” said Price.

Salter said: “I saw him in March and showed him photos of the camellias at Tregothnan. He was absolutely thrilled. It was as if he had found a home for his children in a funny sort of way.”

The camellia is a member of the tea family and there are various species, including Japonica, which is native to Japan and East Asia. There are varieties within that group based on color, size and flower type.

Price said that in the 15th century camellias were being cultivated in the gardens of the nobility and at temples. Some of the monk’s collection can be traced back to that time.

Camellias were introduced into Britain in the 1790s. The fashion in Japan is for single-flowering camellias, while in Britain the preference is for growing more exotic double-flower camellias.