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The camellia in history: literary icon, Coco Chanel's fetish flower and symbol of women's rights

The camellia has had an important role throughout history in different fields. There have been many references to the flower of the Rías Baixas and the province of Pontevedra in universal literature. Alexandre Dumas dedicated the title of one of his classics, The Lady of the Camellias, to this flower; other authors such as Rainer Maria Rilke, Rabindranath Tagore, Federico García Lorca, Octavio Paz, Efraín Huerta or Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, among many others, extolled the virtues of the camellia in their works.

 

Arena del Sur caliente
que pide camelias blancas.
Llora flecha sin blanco,
la tarde sin mañana,
y el primer pájaro muerto
sobre la rama.
¡Oh guitarra!
Corazón malherido
por cinco espadas.

"La guitarra", in El poema de la siguiriya gitana, by Federico García Lorca

 

Hot southern sands

yearning for white camellias.

The arrow weeps without target,

evening without morning

and the first dead bird

on the tree branch.

Oh guitar!

Heart wounded

by five swords.

 

The most popular Galician writers and poets also valued its great beauty; the most prominent ones are Camilo José Cela, Ramón María del Valle-Inclán, Emilia Pardo Bazán, Celso Emilio Ferreiro, Otero Pedrayo, Álvaro Cunqueiro, Eduardo Blanco Amor, Uxío Novoneyra, Francisco Fernández del Riego or Luz Pozo Garza.

 

 

Por debaixo do mar soa un pandeiro

e hai un río de luz asulagado.

Por enriba do mar soa unha frauta

e hai unha rúa de camelios brancos.

Viñen ao sul,

viñen aos ceos craros

Longa noite de pedra, by Celso Emilio Ferreiro

 

A tambourine echoes underneath the sea

and there is a sunken river of light.

A flute sounds upon the sea

and there is a street with white camellia trees.

I am coming south,

I am coming to the clear skies.

 

The beauty, the diversity and the variety of the camellia colours inspired, in Japan, the authors of the haikus. They are short Japanese poems with no title or rhyme. The camellia have been the main topic of some of the best works of this literary genre. The writer Maximino Cacheiro published this year a collection of haiku poems, As Camelias acesas (the bright camellias) published by Editorial Cardeñoso. The following passage belongs to that collection:

 

Soñar coa camelia roxa,

É avivecer a memoria

É darlle vida á vida

 

As camelias esfóllanse

a cor expándese

mensaxe romántica

 

Dreaming about the red camellia,

Is reliving the memories

Is giving life to life

 

The camellias lose its petals

the colour is spread

a romantic message

 

Furthermore, the camellia was a flower of worship and it had several symbolic meanings and it has been involved in different events throughout history. The following are some of the curiosities and episodes in which the flower played an important role:

 

Portraits of royal families

Franz Saber Winterhalter (1820-1873) was a trendy painter of the European royalty during the 19th century. He specialized in dynastic and aristocratic portraits, very valued because of its subtle intimism. He was the painter of the court during the reign of King Louis Philippe I, and, as such, he is the author of several portraits of princesses and aristocratic women that appear most of the times surrounded by flowers, as in the case of the following portraits: Maria Amélia of Braganza; Maria Cristina of Borbón-Dos Sicilias, Queen of Spain; the nieces, Queen Victoria and Victoria, Duchess of Nemours; María Amalia of Portugal and the Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Sissi).

 

Abolitionism in Brazil

In Brazil, at the end of the 19th century, the Portuguese merchant José de Seixas Magalhães was the owner of an estate (Quilombo do Leblon) in which he grew camellia flowers with the help of fugitive slaves that he sheltered. The popular camellias that he sold in the city became the main symbol of abolitionism. The people who wore them on the lapel of their garments or who simply grew them in the garden demonstrated that they were followers of the anti-slavery movement.

Isabel, princess regent of Brazil, known as "the Redemptress", was a staunch defender of the abolitionist campaign. She helped slaves to hide and also to fight for their freedom. In 1988, when she signed the Lei Áurea (Golden Law in Brazil), the president of the abolitionist confederation, João Clapp, gave her a bouquet of artificial camellias. Later on, another bouquet of natural camellias brought from Quilombo do Leblon arrived.

The famous Brazilian artists Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil dedicated a song to the camellias from Quilombo do Leblon.

 

Women's rights

Katherine W. Sheppart (1893) fought for women's rights in New Zealand. Those supporting her cause wore a white camellia boutonniere, whereas those wearing a red camellia were against her ideas. In fact, there is a camellia variety that was named after her. Kate Shepard and the camellias appear on the New Zealand $10 note.

As part of the coronation events of the King Juan Carlos I of Spain, on 27 November 1975, a ceremony was held at the Church of los Jerónimos, in Madrid. On this occasion, the high altar was decorated with "about seven hundred flowers, all of them white: carnations, camellias, tuberoses and gladiolus...".

I. F. Arias & E. Celada (2010). La trastienda de la diplomacia. Plaza & Janés, Barcelona, p. 90

 

Coco Chanel's fetish flower

Coco Chanel (Grabrielle Bonheur), one of the most important fashion designers in the 20th century, turned the camellia into her fetish flower when her great love, Arthur Boyle Capel, gave her a bouquet of camellias as a present.

Marilyn Monroe was asked once by a journalist what she wore in bed and she replied: "I only wear Chanel No. 5"

 

The Methuselah of the Camellias, in Vigo

Hubert B. Owens, an architect from Georgia who visited the Pazo Museo Quiñones de León, in Vigo, in 1961, stated: "...in this garden grows the largest and oldest camellia tree that I have ever seen. This tree, with a 60 cm-trunk diameter at ground level, is growing on the east side of the large box hedge. This specimen must be more than two hundred years old. I could not determine the name of the variety. The view of this Methuselah of the race of the camellias has really left a deep impression on me".