“If you want to live happily for a day, get drunk. If you want to live happily for a month, kill a pig. If you want to live happily for a year, get married. If you want to live happily for all of your days, grow camellias.” That’s how an old Chinese proverb goes and we all know that it’s hard to go wrong with Eastern sagacity. A token of information for those who have never grown them: camellias are in flower between January and April every year. So it’s the right time to start, choosing from dozens of varieties that differ in terms of shape and colour.
Originating from the East, there are over 250 wild species of camellia and thousands of cultivated varieties called cultivar. Made immortal by Alexandre Dumas’ novel, The Lady of the Camellias, and adored by Coco Chanel, the camellia continues to charm. It is the symbol of love and supreme, hidden perfection.
No-one knew what it was called when it arrived in England onboard an East India naval vessel in the first few years of the 18th century. It remains nameless for another 50 years until Linneo registered it in the official botanical history as Camellia, in honour of the Jesuit father, Georg Joseph Kamel, who had brought it to London in 1738 on his return from a journey to the Philippines.
From England, the rage for camellia spread throughout Europe and there was a real madness to grab the rarest varieties. However it was in France, in the second half of the 19th century, when the camellia achieved its season of glory: it was the flower of Alphonsine Plessis in the Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas, which triumphed as a novel in 1849 and as a lyrical work as la Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi in 1853. The camellia then became a symbol of love. It is a sin, but it is also a symbol of redemption.
An event not to be missed for those who want to find out more about the world of camellias, the Mostra delle Antiche Camelie della Lucchesia (exhibition of ancient camellias in the Lucchesia area), takes place on the weekends of 14/15 – 21/22 – 28/29 of March at S. Andrea di Compito. Among the various initiatives planned, the Mostra del Fiore Reciso (exhibition of cut flowers) deserves a mention, where approximately 200 cultivar of the species Camelia japonica will be on show coming from the Lucchesia area, as well as historic collections such as from the Boboli Gardens in Florence. Visiting the Camellietum Compitese is an exciting experience: a botanical garden that’s undergoing amplification gathering together 380 cultivar recovered from the parks and gardens of historic villas, not just in the Lucca area, but from all over Tuscany. An extremely important botanical heritage that was otherwise at risk of being lost.
Finally, a visit to the incredible camellia garden of Villa Borrini, is totally intoxicating. As you enter the tall camellia trees form a sky dotted with flowers and a multicolored carpet covers the ground. The collection was started at the beginning of the 19th century by Angelo Borrini, the court doctor of Charles Louis of Bourbon-Parma, who developed this love after having come into contact with European culture and the romantic spirit of the time.
With a collection of more than seventy 18th century varieties of camellia japonica – begun by Francesco Maria Borrini In 1817 – and an experimental plantation, the only one In Italy, of camellia sinensis, or as is more commonly known the tea plant – the Chiusa at Villa Borrini is one of the main stops on our itinerary which continues on to Villa Giovanetti and Villa Orsi. In the park belonging to the latter there are about eighty very large sized camellias including the beautiful Madam Pépin, the Paolina Maggi, the Drouard Gouillon and the rare Violacea Superba.
Finally, for those who are fascinated by this flower and wishing to embark on the road to collecting, we advise them to stop a while at the Mercato delle Camelia – the Camellia Market – where a few, but very select nurseries propose varieties of camellia not to be found anywhere else.
There are just a couple of secrets in cultivating them: the type of ground must be acid, with a peaty base, but light and well-drained. Camellias loathe standing in water, therefore it is best not to overwater.
Where: S. Andrea in Compito, Capannori
Address: Via Fonda, 1
When: weekend March 14/15 – 21/22 – 28/29
Entrance Ticket: 7 euros
How to get there:
From the Agriturismo I Pitti, Casa Rowe Bed & Breakfast and the Cosy Apartment in Florence it is necessary to use the car and drive along the Highway A11 (Firenze-Mare) direction Pisa: Exit Capannori. Keep on the right continue straight for about 3 km then continue towards Pontedera until you reach Pieve di Compito.
From Lucca: take the SS12 bis towards Pisa until Pontetetto. In Pontetetto take on the left, the route of Sottomonte towards Pontedera. Drive along route Sottomonte to turn right onto the SS439 (still towards Pontedera) until Pieve di Compito.
During the Exhibition of Antique Camelias, which is open from 10 to 18, the Village S. Andrea di Compito is closed to traffic and visitors will be able to access it with the special shuttle, available from 9.30 until the end of the event in the evening. Car parking, shuttle station and ticket office are located at the Frantoio Sociale del Compitese – via di Tiglio 609, Pieve di Compito.