Origin and Symbolism of the Beloved Camellia

By Grace Harbison, Former Ambler Arboretum Student Gardener

Camellias are a beautiful plant to admire. Whether it is a planted back against a hedge, or situated along the outside edge of a garden bed, it is sure to attract attention with its bold and bright rose-like flowers. Even after the blooms have fallen off in spring, the plant still maintains its showy appearance through its bright, glossy leaves.

The ancient history of Camellias originates in the southeastern temperate forests and subtropical forests of Asia. Many different species were used to make tea but the species, Camellia sinensis, stands out as having the best leaves and buds to make tea. In China, the tea had various uses as it was valued for its many medicinal properties. The tea contains useful health components such as caffeine, amino acids, polyphenols and antioxidants known as flavonoids. These properties help the tea to treat asthma, bacterial infections, and even heart problems. Even though Chinese and Japanese botanists were first known to cultivate Camellias, the plant is named after the Jesuit missionary and botanist Georg Joseph Kamel. After Kamel’s time in Asia, he introduced the plant in Europe during the 17th century. This introduction helped to highlight the plants wonderful ornamental qualities. Finally, during the colonial era of the western countries, the plant gained widespread popularity as many wealthy colonists collected the plant for their vast gardens and large conservatories.

Today, as a result of heavy cultivation, there are more than 20,000 different Camellia varieties. Camellias are understory plants that grow into large shrubs or into medium sized trees if they are left alone. They occur in forests that are either dense or sparse and moderately moist or dry. The leaves feel thick and have a dark green, glossy appearance to them. Along the margins, the leaves are lined with finely minute serrations. The flowers can be single flowered, semi-doubled or doubled flowered and come in shades of white, yellow, red, and pink. In Japan, where thousands can be seen blooming at once, it is known as the Japanese Rose. Our Japanese Camellia (Camellia japonica), located in the Albright Winter Garden, is a popular shrub with multiple stems and light pink rose shaped petals that give a flower spread of 3-6 inches. Since Camellias are temperate and humidity-loving plants, the Japanese Camellia is planted against a tall hedge to protect it from harsh winds and the cold winter temperatures.

Much of the symbolism in a Camellia is attributed to the unique way the inflorescence falls off. Most flowering species lose their petals first and then the calyx, the outside sepals.

However, the Camellia loses its petals and calyx all at once. In Chinese symbolism, the green calyx, the part that holds the flower in place, represents the man, the protector, while the petals represents the women. This symbolism represents the balance and longevity that are needed in a loving relationship. Camellias symmetrical flower growth has also helped the plant to symbolize perfection and excellence. In Japan, the flower symbolizes divinity and is commonly used in religious and sacred ceremonies. In Korea, the flowers symbolize the union of faithfulness and longevity. Since 1200 B.C., the flowers have been a staple in Korean weddings. In the United States, the Camellia is the state flower of Alabama and symbolizes beauty. This versatile and attractive plant has its roots in Asia but has pleased gardeners and admirers alike throughout the world over the last several centuries.

Reference Links

https://www.trianglegardener.com/heritage-camellias-a-growing-history%E2%80%A8/ https://flower-meanings.com/camellia-flower-meaning/ https://www.americancamellias.com/care-culture-resources/the-camellia-family/camellia-species


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Guest Blogger: Grace Harbison – Plant Mimicry as Beauty and Survival

Currently our Arboretum student workers, who are all Landscape Architecture or Horticulture students are not able to be physically present to work in the Arboretum due to the social distancing recommendations to maintain the health and safety of our community.

Grace Harbison, one of our student workers, has remained on staff creating content for the Director’s Blog.  Here she tells us all about the mysteries of Lungwort.

Plant Mimicry as Beauty and Survival

Plants and animals have coexisted with each other for as long as time can tell. Through these complex interactions, plants and animals have developed many various adaptions to harmoniously live in a state of interdependence on one another. One of the ways plants have learned to cope with herbivory is through the process of mimicry. Plant mimicry involves the resemblance of a species to a precision that the selective agent is unable to distinguish between the actual species and the mimicking species. A well-known example of mimicry is Batesian mimicry that exists within the butterfly world. Viceroy butterflies, that have no defense mechanism against predators, have learned to visually acquire the toxic qualities of Monarch butterflies by mimicking wing pattern. Monarch butterflies are naturally avoided by predators such as birds and frogs since they are known to be poisonous from their host plant, milkweed, that they consume as larvae. As a result, the Viceroy species is able to trick suspecting predators that they are Monarch butterflies and they are no longer eaten.

One shade perennial that experts suggest has developed a form of visual mimicry to fool their suspecting herbivores, is the lungwort. Our species, Pulmonaria saccharata, is located in the Ground Cover Garden in the center oval bed. Lungworts are a great mid spring blooming perennial that adds to a shady ground cover garden or even in a sunny perennial garden where it will receive shade from the leaves of later blooming perennials. In the cool, moist months of spring, lungwort’s blooms add a wonderful pop of early spring color in white, pink, or purple. Our species, Pulmonaria saccharata has flowers that bloom a light pink. The leaves are covered in white or silver splotches and have a rough and fuzzy feel due to its covering of stiff hairs. An interesting fact about the leaves is that they were once believed by medieval herbalists to having lung disease curing properties, hence its name. This was thought since the leaves closely resemble a diseased liver. This has been proven to be false but today biologists are hypothesizing a scientific reason why the plant has developed splotchy looking leaves.

It is thought that the spotty pattern acts as an essential tool for survival. The splotchy pattern has been noted to closely mimic droppings or fecal matter from small insects such as caterpillars. This reduces lungworts chance of herbivory damage as deer, voles, or mice will not risk eating a plant that looks diseased from insects droppings. For instance, this theory is very evident on Pulmonaria officinalis, a species that contains white splotches that are very familiar to bird droppings. While this is not known with full certainty, it sure explains why lungwort is known to have few diseases and pests. The plant will occasionally experience leaf damage from slugs and powdery mildew from consistent wet weather and poor air circulation. Other non-serious problems include browning of leaves if the plant is in a hot sunny area with soil that is not kept consistently moist.

So next time you stumble upon a plant with an interesting pattern or shape, make sure to take a close evaluation. Look at the plant’s colors, look at the placement of the buds or even look at the shape and color of the plants seed head. Ask yourself, do the placement of the seeds or patterns resemble anything, remind you of anything familiar? Always remember what might look aesthetically pleasing to us, might serve as an essential function to the plant’s survival.






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Guest Blogger: Grace Harbison on the Curious Cauliflory

Grace Harbison joins us again as Guest Blogger to give us some more insight to the plants

Curious Cauliflory

Grace Harbison

Many flowering plants produce blooms on new growth of leafy branches or on previous growth of still actively growing branches. These flowering adaptions allow plants to successfully attract many different types of pollinators. However, some plants have developed a new way of attracting pollinators (like insects and birds) and mammals (like bats) for their sugary nectar and tasty fruit. Some woody plants have evolved to form floral buds on mature primary limbs and main trunks, known as cauliflory. The spelling of cauliflory is very similar to the vegetable, cauliflower, however the words have very different meanings as the cauliflower has flowers that arise from a central stem. Cauliflory originates from the Latin word, caulis, meaning “stem” and flor, translating to “flower.” One plant species in the Ambler Arboretum that is known as having cauliflorous blooming is the Eastern Redbud, Cercis canadensis.          

            Eastern Redbud is a small understory tree that is one of the first trees to bloom in the spring, beginning around May. The Redbud genus is found along eastern and western North America, southern Europe and eastern Asia. These trees grow in small or scattered populations in open woodlands and valleys of moist loamy or sandy soil. The pink to purple flowers appear, on the axils of one-year old branches, before the leaves and contain the typical structure of pea flowers, 3 upright petals and 2 lower fused petals protecting the reproductive parts. This species is a member of the Fabaceae family, pea family, however it is not known to contribute to nitrogen fixation, a common trait of many Fabaceae plants. After flowering, the tree reveals small burgundy heart shaped leaves that later turn to green as they grow. The fruit consists of 3 inch long, skinny, pea-shaped pods that start out green and change to brown when they fully mature. Besides flowering on young branches, the tree is also known to have blooms on the bark of trunks and main branches. Most of the plants displaying this unique adaption are tropical but the Eastern Redbud happens to be one of the temperate species with the trait.

It is unclear the advantages the Eastern Redbud gains from the lower-lying blooms on its bark. In general, many tropical trees that display this characteristic have seeds dispersed by small animals such as bats, mice, and birds. It is thought that by growing flowers on trunks and main branches, trees can produce fruit that is larger and more easily accessible to its fructivores. The Eastern Redbud is not tropical but it is believed that by its cauliflorous quality, it is expressing its tropical origins. Another thought is that this species allows for easier cross-pollination by low forest dwelling pollinators. For instance, the Eastern Redbud is pollinated by bumble bees and carpenter bees that spent most of their lives near the ground. This tree reaches heights of 20-30 feet and therefore it is most adept at attracting pollinators that naturally travel at low heights. Whatever the reason cauliflory is intended for, it certainly provides for an attractive, colorful garden presentation.







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Guest Blogger: Grace Harbison on Magnificent Magnolias

While the Arboretum is closed, Grace, a Horticulture Major in the Tyler School of Art and Architecture as well as an Ambler Arboretum Student Worker, is sharing some information about various plants that can be found around the Arboretum and in the greenhouse at this time of year.

This week Grace explores our Magnificent Magnolias.

Magnificent Magnolias

Grace Harbison

The diversity and range of spring blooms includes the spectacular colors of the beloved magnolia. Everywhere one walks one is bound to spot the large showy flowers in early spring or mid-summer. These trees can be a small upright specimen that is suitable for tight spaces, or can be a mature, tall, sprawling tree that needs plenty of room to spread its branches. These trees can be deciduous with thin, glabrous leaves or evergreen with shiny, waxy leaves. The flowers can be white with many strappy petals, large pink saucer-shaped flowers, or yellow cupped-shaped flowers. After flowering, the trees reveal their exotic cone lookalike seed pods that open to reveal bright red seeds. The wood is generally light gray and soft, making it a great option for furniture. The wood is valued for making crates, boxes, and light furniture. Magnolias are highly grown for their ornamental value but they are also considered to be one of the first flowering trees in existence.

It is believed that magnolias date back to the Cretaceous period, 145 million years ago, making them one of the first flowering trees in existence. One of the main features that give magnolias their ancient characteristic is their distinct floral buds. The flower buds are encased in modified leaves, bracts, instead of sepals like many other flowering trees. In addition, the petals are called tepals as the inner and outer petals are physically the same. They also have evolved to adapt to one of the earliest pollinators, beetles. This is evident in the inside of the inflorescence. The cone like cluster of carpels, the female reproductive organ, are hardened to tolerate the sharp mandibles of the feeding beetles. Another detail is that the inner tepals are known to remain unopened for a few days allowing the beetle to fully cover itself in pollen. Now that you have learned what makes magnolias so magnificent, let’s learn about a few of the well-known magnolia species in the Ambler Arboretum.

The Southern Magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, is an evergreen species that is known for its stunning white flowers and unmistakable glossy leaves. Due to its attractive showy qualities and adaptability to warm climates, it is commonly seen as a specimen tree on the lawns of the Southern states. It has a broad native range as it can been seen growing from North Carolina to Florida and west to Texas. It is a large tree that needs lots of space to grow as it can reach heights of 80 feet and widths of 40 feet. The large creamy fragrant flowers bloom in May and are known grow to a foot in diameter. Its leaves are dark green above with a shiny appearance and waxy feel. The underside of the leaves are covered in brown hairs giving the leaf a rusty appearance. This tree grows best in full or part sun and will need protection from the wind in the Northern states. Today, the oldest known living Southern Magnolia was planted in 1839 by General Grandison D. Royston. The tree, called by some the “Jones Magnolia,” can be seen standing in Washington State Park in Washington, Arkansas.

Another popular magnolia known for its showstopping blooms is the Saucer Magnolia, Magnolia x soulangeana. This is a horticultural hybrid that has high tolerance to winds and alkaline soils, a trait that many magnolia species lack. It is also very tolerant of poor soils and air pollution making it a suitable choice for city environments. This species gets to around 30 feet tall with variable lengths in crown spread. The leaves are bright green with a paler green, and fuzzy underside that turn a beautiful coppery brown in the fall. The flowers bloom a light pink to slight purple color in mid-spring. The flowers (like that shown at the top of this article) are large opening up to 8 inches long like a saucer, owning to the name of the species.

A native specimen that is not so common among gardens but is noteworthy to know is the Cucumber Magnolia, Magnolia acuminata. Cucumber Magnolia’s growing range is scattered along eastern North America where it can be found growing in the southern Appalachian Mountains and along the wooded valleys and thickets of the Mississippi River. The tree’s habit is generally a straight trunk with a pyramidal crown that reaches heights of 40-70 feet. The flowers are small and inconspicuous compared to other magnolias in that they bloom a green yellow and are about 2-4 inches wide. The Cucumber Magnolia gets its name from the green, oblong shaped seed pods that appear after the flowers. Later, the seeds pods mature to a vibrant red creating a rich contrast against the shiny green leaves. Another interesting feature, is that in the fall the leaves change into attractive colors of golden yellow and coppery orange.






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Due to the Social Distancing Protocols in Effect the Ambler Arboretum of Temple University is Temporarily Closed

Fragrant Blooms of Winter Viburnum (Viburnum farreri)

Temple University is focused on ensuring the health and safety of our community members and campus and Arboretum visitors. The university is taking several measures to keep everyone safe amid the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

On March 12, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announced that all Montgomery County schools, including universities, would be closed for two weeks. In accordance, Temple University Ambler closed on Thursday, March 12. The Ambler Arboretum will also be closed to outside guests at this time. Additionally all Arboretum programming has been cancelled through the end of May. 

We are looking forward to seeing you in the gardens and at our programs again when we re-open.


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Ash Trees and the Devastation of the Emerald Ash Borer

As many of you in the area have experienced, and like many of the large green spaces, parks and preserve throughout the region, the Emerald Ash Borer has decimated the population of Ash Trees in the Ambler Arboretum and around the campus.

Our first priorty is safety of the Arboretum and Campus users  – students, faculty, staff and visitors. The two miles of trails that run through the perimter woodlands of campus are used frequently by classes, walkers, joggers and dog walkers.

We are in the process of cutting down the dead and dying ash trees along the trails. We ask that you please adhere to posted signage requesting people to stay off the paths while an active work area or in the case of paths still needing attention.  We are opening and closing trails and paths as needed and the access to these paths will change accordingly.

Many people want to know what will happen to the wood. This is a good question. We are looking into a variety of options, but for now the wood will remain in the woodlands.

An equal amount of people would like to know what the plan is for restoring the woodland to help compensate for the loss of nearly all of the Ash trees. We will assess the damage and work with faculty and staff to determine the nest course of action and proceed accordingly. You can check back here, or contact the Arboretum for more details or to volunteer your efforts to the process.

To learn more about the devestation caused by the Emeraldd Ash Borer, how it became a problem and what you can do to prevent other insects like this from becoming a problem visit the USDA Hungry Pests wesbite.

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Pink Flags of Progress

This fall pinks flags have been popping up around the Arboretum. The infestation began towards the end of summer in early September and just recently came to an end. This was an infestation of some pink flags of progress.

Each of the pink flags represents a plant or grouping of plants that was newly installed this fall. The pink flags indicate they are freshly planted while alerting the Arboretum staff and student workers of the need for watering these plants on a regular basis.

Sometimes seeing pink flags around a property, especially a treasured landscape like the Arboretum, can cause alarm and questions about development and construction or underground utilities. But in this case, these are pink flags of plantings.

Nearly 1000 plants were added to arboretum displays and collections through the season. Perennials, shrubs and trees were planted in gardens throughout the 187 acres.

Some of the highlights are:

Oxydendrum arboretum – Sourwood

Parrotia persica ‘Vanessa’ – Vanessa Persian Ironwood

Ilex ‘Red Beauty’ – Red Beauty Holly

The development of an area near West Hall features plants in the Theaceae family:

Stewartia koreana – Korean Stewartia

Franklinia alatamaha – Franklin Tree

Now the shade house is (nearly) empty of plants destined for the Arboretum displays and we are spending winter planning what we can add next.

And as for those pink flags? They will be replaced in the spring with 3-D printed bright blue raindrops made of sustainable filament, less alarming and a bit more sublte than the pink flags of progress.

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Arboretum as Habitat

Seems to be a bumper crop of butterflies around this summer. Have you noticed this too?

Feels like everywhere I look I find Lepidoptera in various stages of development.

When I find one of these, or participate in our annual BioBlitz, or pause to consider the damage the deer, rabbit, groundhogs are causing to our plantings I find time to reflect on the fact that the Arboretum is a home.

Polyphemous Moth

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April Showers Bring…. May Showers

The author – puddle jumping

I love a good puddle jump as much as the next person. I am also fully aware, as I am sure you are too, that we need rain for the flowers to grow and for our trees to thrive. But it has been tough keeping a positive attitude about all of this rain.

The fuzzy leaves of Lady’s Mantle Alchemilla mollis collect rain drops.

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Bark at the Arboretum: Kuma and Jersey Visit

The Ambler Arboretum is a popular spot for more than taking in the beauty of the trees. Seems that many folks find it a great place to walk their dogs. We welcome dogs at the arboretum. Of course, if you decide to bring your canine companion to our gardens we do ask that you follow the following rules:

  • Dogs must be attended and on a leash at all times. Short leashes are recommended as poison ivy and interactions with wildlife in the gardens is possible on longer leashes.
  • Owners/attendants are responsible for removal and disposal of their dogs’ wastes in the proper receptacles (at this time the Ambler Arboretum does not provide waste bags for your dog). There are trash cans located throughout campus as well as in the visitor’s parking lot.
  • All dogs must have their vaccinations and registrations
  • For the safety of your pet and that of our plantings and the wildlife that calls the Arboretum home, please keep your dog on pathways and roadways, not in the gardens and planted areas
  • Do not leave your pets in unattended vehicles
  • Do not allow pets to urinate on  plants.
  • If your dog needs space or someone wanting to pet the dog should ask you before approaching the dog, we ask that you indicate this by tying a yellow ribbon to your dog’s collar or leashLearn more about the Yellow Dog Project.

Now that all of those rules are out of the way, let me introduce you to our first blog dogs Kuma and Jersey.

Cousins Kuma and Jersey decide which way to go in the Ernesta Ballard Healing Garden

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