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  • Writer's pictureShainna M. Callaway

The Ancient Camellias in Lucchesia, Toscano

Updated: Mar 2, 2020

My beautiful daughter as we chose our favorites from the plants for sale at the Centro Culturale Compitese in 2019.

In Italia, there are ancient camellias brought from Asia during the 18th century. The camellia is a wonderful flowering evergreen shrub that can be enjoyed when almost nothing else is ready to bloom in the colder months around the outskirts of winter. This past season, I was able to visit a “town of camellias” that has made me fall in love a little bit more.

A camellia found along the walk at Parco Villa Reale di Camigliano, Tuscany, Italy in 2019

The history of them appearing in Italy seems a bit scandalous because I recall reading it was Napoleon’s sister, Elisa Bacciocchi, that had them first brought to Europe. Her brother had quite generously gifted her an enormous Villa near Lucca, now known as the Parco Villa Reale di Camigliano. Even this exchange has something worth sensationalizing, since it appears the true owner of the estate melted down the silver and took it with him when he was forced to leave as a kind of last laugh on his way out the door. Anyway, I tried to find that bit of information I read earlier this year about the origins of la camelia, and instead found that several other countries are also laying claim to bringing the first camellia to Europe. There was even a small reference in an article that gave the impression that perhaps Napoleon came into possession of camellias by theft of a Portuguese collection. (read in the article, “The Chinese Species of Camellia in Cultivation,” by Bruce Bartholomew)

My lovely friend, Rachael from Fairhope, Alabama, USA, told me earlier this year that the camellia is her favorite flower. I wanted to see what Italy does with them to share with her and came across a festival worth traveling to witness. Ms. Elisa, the Princess of Lucca, may have notoriously came in with her many disruptions but her love of camellias has proven to be a lasting impression worth celebrating.

The drive out to witness this flowering exhibition took us up into a hilltop collection of villages nestled inside a mountain range. I followed the chance change of route our gps system suggested midway and was able to traverse under a bare canopy of trees as we approached from the lower plains. In the shuttle bus that took us to the heart of the show, the age of the area played through beautifully in the masonry genius of the locals. I have never seen more interesting and beautifully done homes and walls of what appeared to be parts of relic homes, stones, bricks, and creamy peach toned mortar that melted together into a sturdy refurbished but also well preserved ancient village to rival the wonder of the world of camellias they house.

This photo was taken while walking the route of the Borgo delle Camelie, in 2019

The weather was that perfect crisp feeling on the brink between winter and spring for the walking tour through two quiet towns, Pieve and Sant’Andrea di Compito. There is a stream with several little waterfalls that runs alongside the villages and the melody of a babbling brook with the accompaniment of birdsong played for us along parts of the route. The other tourists seemed to relish the serenity, too, as they often only whispered their admirations to one another.

Conveniently located at the crest of the first steep hill is a cafe with plenty of outdoor seating. We strolled around the displays put together by the Antiche Camelie Della Lucchesia society daydreaming of being able to bring home on the airplane all the plants for sale. Alas, we were only able to purchase some salami and fresh bread to eat with bottles of water and espressos. It was a nice little picnic stop before we continued onwards.

There were several places along the route to enter and admire the camellias. The Chiusa Borrini (c.1598) had a winding pathway on a steep hillside. It had the most perfect white camellia in the whole exhibit. They had this one plant labeled as “purity” which fit the bloom perfectly. It’s center was a tiny chaste closed bud with the surrounding petals flaring with embellished edges and was absolutely entrancing.

Another memorable garden was the Villa Borrini courtyard which had so many that grew as tall as a two story house that it felt like we entered a secret grove of the flowers. The pathways almost cramped with the crush of pinks and reds surrounding them. The varieties were also well labeled with dates and histories ranging all the way back to the early 1800s.

I realize now that two of the examples I chose to include happen to be from the Borrini family. Looking back at the map that was given to us when we purchased the tickets, I missed nearly all the other gardens besides these three I mentioned. It appears we took the longest route which happened to take us to see several historical sites, but we missed five gardens of interest. I feel gut punched by my own stupidity as I am just finding this out. To find some kind of silver lining, the Borrini family is instrumental in the history of camellias for the area.

I feel the need to mention that one of the gardens we missed seems to house a collection of camellias as a sort of storage space for all the species acquired by the society with some that are rare or almost extinct. I was eager to see it when I read about this Camelieto conservatory being part of the exhibit weeks beforehand, but I had forgotten it’s importance by the time we came to that fork in the road. On my mind was the desire to make it back to the car with enough time so we would still make it for the other half of the ticket to see Villa Reale’s camellias. I have regretted missing this assemblage ever since.

Onto Parco Villa Reale di Camigliano, the grounds and all it encompasses were much more impressive for me than the camellia walk. I mean, the group was of course very beautiful, but the entirety of the estate was so much more than just those dozen or more tall shrubs. There was a lovely lawn that gently sloped to a large pond. The trees they had chosen framed the possibilities of perfect photographs for any occasion. There was a wisteria pergola that had the very beginnings of blooms next to a tennis court, if I recall correctly. And a frightening little building of mosaics that I think allowed rain play to occur from openings in the roof. The monsters inside that dank and dark room were oh so thrilling and provided me with that adrenaline induced shiver of fear. The hedges were walls of what seemed to be twenty or more feet (around six meters). I sneaked a peek inside of them to find the original plants’ trunks at least a hand wide. It appears that this infamous villa and it’s notorious connection with royal blood has done wonders for it’s current state of being well manicured and enjoyable.

Unfortunately, we did arrive near the end of the opening hours and could not traverse the entire grounds or even attempt to enter the villa. I hope I can return another season to see all that I missed. The amount of time it would take to truly enjoy both the town of camellias and Villa Reale at a leisurely pace would more likely be closer to three days: two days to see all the gardens along the many paths in the two towns and one day for Villa Reale. Trying to pack it all in at once was an overkill that I learned from for future garden tours.

If the suggested amount of time is two hours, it takes me closer to five to see it all. Maybe I walk more slowly, maybe I stare longer, or maybe I need that extra time to just live in the moment. Even then, when I walk out the gates I always leave with a feeling of longing like I wish my life allowed me to be in the garden for a lifetime instead of a handful of hours in one day.

Perhaps that is that feeling of banishment from Eden: the punishment of man’s original sin. Perhaps, I am supposed to feel this way.

Much love and kind regards, Shainna 🌼

My absolute favorite bloom from the entire trip, "General Coletti" in 2019

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