Camellias can lead you astray – plant with care

Gavin the young plantsman delivered a camellia yesterday afternoon.

I had always planned to have one in the new garden because one of the saddest things about moving from my old house was leaving behind a giant, promiscuously flowering specimen which brought Spring to a dramatic conclusion every year.

Gavin and I first discussed planting as large a plant as possible in my newly laid out garden almost exactly a year ago. It was due to come from Italy, the home of many sensuous temptations but various things intervened, the Italian company closed and Gavin moved premises but, as good as his word, he rang me this week and said that he could supply one immediately. It is 150 cm tall and ready to play.

He agreed to carry it up the internal staircase to my garden and plant it for me as I am still forbidden from doing such things because of my fractured spine.

Planting is one of those inspirational jobs that I have missed since my injury.

By digging the soil, preparing it gently with sprinkled nutrients, placing the root ball and unleashing its pent-up energies, you form a lasting relationship with a plant.

For Gavin too, that man-and-the-soil relationship was clearly no hardship. I envied him his vigour and enthusiasm as he dug and I stood there still frozen by injury.

The camellia, so deep a pink that is is almost red, is beginning to flower and there are a lot more buds waiting to follow so I am as happy as that legendary and light-hearted man, Larry.

Larry, by the way, must be the luckiest man since Reilly, whose life is also always put up as an ideal.

One day I might change my name to Larry Reilly but, yesterday, with the arrival of this magnificent plant, I challenged both gentlemen in my joie de vivre.

Camellias, when I first saw them, struck me as not only supremely beautiful but also delicate and presumably of a hot-house sensibility.

The flowers are waxy and voluptuous, usually pink, white or red, with leaves of matching exoticism, shiny, deep green with a rubbery texture that makes them a welcome addition to any garden long after the flowers have wilted.

I was amazed to find out that I was wrong about them being delicate and that, they were, in fact hardy, if they were planted in the right acid soil in the right position to shield them from burning when the early morning dew is dried out by the rising sun.

There is a touch of sun burn on my new camellia, sorry Gavin, but at least the new buds will open to a friendlier world.

Camellias really are one of the wonders of late Spring, almost too beautiful and sensual to flower in this sensible country where flowers are meant to be orderly and respectable.

They have always talked of other things, forbidden fruit or, at least, erotic adventures.

When not flowering in the garden, these blooms had another home, adorning and drawing the eye to the cleavage of a beautiful woman.

No one more beautiful than one Marie Plessis, the original Lady of the Camellias.

She was as sexually alluring as any woman of the 19th. Century. Born to a working class family in provincial France in 1824, she climbed all the way to the top of Parisian society through her beauty, charm, intelligence and, most of all, her sexual magnetism.

Marie Plessis became the grander sounding Alphonsine Duplessis once she was established as the courtesan of choice for anyone who was anyone in early 19th. Century Paris. Courtesans weren’t exactly prostitutes, they were kept women, entertaining companions who would often live the life style of an aristocrat whilst maintaining the sexual freedom of a rabbit.

She was attracted to artistic types like the writers Honore du Balzac, Theophile Guatier, Alfred du Musset and, most famously, Alexandre Dumas fils. Writers, then as now, weren’t the richest men in town so she earned her keep by offering her services to various dukes, barons and counts, like the aristocracy today, usually unattractive but enormously rich, who paid for her lavish life style and allowed her to have a few writers on the side.

Sadly, she developed consumption, tuberculosis, that disease that carried off so many beautiful and romantic young people in life and in fiction. Eventually her illness prevented her from earning her living; the men drifted away and she died broke and in debt at the age of just 23.

Why, you may think, the camellias?

They were her trademark.

Erotic traffic lights, signals to her lovers, she used them to publicise her menstrual cycle. Red, as ever was stop and white meant Hello Sailor.

Alexandre Dumas fils, or Junior as they say in the States was the son of Alexandre Dumas pere, or Senior, the famous and best-selling author of The Three Musketeers. Young Alexandre was dashing and full of energy and, consequently, he was shown more than his fair share of white camellias.

Alphonsine and Alexandre Junior were the same age, both 20 when they met, and both ripe for the experience.

In the way of many young men though, Alexandre went abroad just as Alphonsine became ill and he didn’t return until just after her death.

Let’s not be harsh towards him though, he was broke, young and randy with a bargain hunter’s eye whilst she was generally open for offers.

She must have been special because so many men fell for her, and, whatever the truth was, she has become a symbol of love. Not obviously of the Valentine’s Day variety; her love, as the rapidly growing legend insisted, was challenged, ill-treated, socially unacceptable but unwavering and, naturally, overwhelmingly passionate.

I wasn’t good at dates as a schoolboy but in this story they are important.

Alphonsine died in 1847, Alexandre, broke and trying to emulate his successful writer father, wrote his most famous book, La Dame aux Camellias, in 1848. It was, without doubt, one of the most cynically produced novels of the 19th Century – a kiss and tell story that made his name and his fortune.

His real and sensational success came four years later in 1852 when he turned it into the play that was to become the most successful drama of the 19th. Century. The role every actress had to play before taking her diva crown.

Sitting in the audience in 1852 was the Italian opera composer, Giuseppe Verdi who recognised the story’s potential immediately and promptly got to work. La Traviata, his version of La Dame aux Camellias, was premiered, a year later, in Venice in 1853.

Poor Alphonsine, always useful to men. When she died she wasn’t worth a penny. All her possessions, including her parrot, were auctioned at a sale which attracted more prurient visitors than even Tracey Emin’s unmade bed.

Dumas, was a jerk who grew into a moralising bore, his book is a dull read too, and the play lacks much depth but, for all that, it inspired one of the glories of the operatic stage.

Alphonsine will live for ever as Violetta Valery, the courtesan with a heart who, tragically, does the honourable thing, sings some of Verdi’s most effecting music and brings everyone to tears as the final curtain falls.

One English woman leaving the opera house once said, La Traviata makes you feel such a fool, crying like that at the end.

That is Verdi’s way, it is also the power of that woman who inspired so much bad behaviour and who has given me a memento and an inspiration, newly flowering in my garden.

I forgot to mention her to Gavin, I am sure that they would have got on well together.

I know she made it to the movies too, but it is Verdi’s opera that is Alphonsine’s greatest memorial. In the following duet from the last act of La Traviata, two bright young stars of today’s operatic stage sing the wonderful, tear-jerking duet when Alfredo and Violetta are reunited, much too late of course, and plan to leave Paris and illness beind for some perfect place, a desert island maybe, where their love can flourish.


  1. You can actually leave that plant out all year?? See, you asked me earlier about the difference between our growing seasons and that is the heart of it: here in the northeast US the ground freezes solid in the winter. No camellias, no rosemary, lavender is a gamble…I’m so envious.

    I am selfishly looking forward to increased global warming so I can finally grow a proper rosemary.

    On the other hand, my summers are sunny and hot and I raise knockout tomatoes, so there.

  2. I guess most of us over here, Anatole, would swap our mild winters for your hot summers.

    I have mostly been in the cities over your way in the summertime – not nearly as good an experience, I am sure, as the climate where you have the luxury of a garden.

    I did spend some time in Pennsylvania one summer though – golden doesn’t do it justice. My turn to be envious.

    Summer can be a gamble in England – sensational at its best but it can be disappointing too with rain in August – more than you would want.

    Am I just trying to make you feel good? A little bit!

    Here in the South, we are pretty lucky. Last summer I could lie out in that back yard and get pretty hot.

    As for camellias, rosemary and lavender, well I am amazed they are a problem for you. They are really easy to grow here.

    Tomatoes? hmmmm…….should I stop now before you cry?

    I did lose , I think, the least hardy of the passion flowers last winter to a sharp frost though, it was an experiment and only one stem now has any green on it.

    Between us,I guess we even out our the advantages and disadvantages.

    At least La Traviata grows well with you….the Met. has a proud record celebrating the lady of the have had all the great ones over the years.

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