Higo Camellias

A History of Higo Camellias

Denise Di Salvia

Wa-jin_HigoHigo Camellias come from the Kumamoto Prefecture of Japan’s southernmost island, Kyushu. Prior to 1867, this area in Midwestern Kyushu was known as Higo Province – “Hi” meant “fertile zone” and “go” meant “of the other side”, referring to its geographical position.

The history of the Higo Camellia is bound up with that of the samurai of Higo Province. Besides waging war, these warriors were also interested in the finer arts of poetry, painting, literature, calligraphy and horticulture. They cultivated Camellias in their family gardens. All their efforts in producing exquisite camellias were always to please their masters (shoguns) and ultimately, the Emperor. Their devotion was later spread to include their own families. This lead to the rise of a new custom of planting a deceased relative’s favourite Camellia in the family cemetery, this having respect not only for the ancestors, but also the Higo Camellia.

The first record of Higo Camellias was the “Uekiya Bunsuke Hikki” (Notes of Nurseryman Bunsuke), written in 1829 and listing 30 Higo varieties growing in the garden of Edo Hokosawa, a “diamyo” (feudal lord), including Yamato Nishiki, which is still growing today. Their cultivation must have begun several decades earlier for them to be listed as mature garden plants, so their history can be traced back to the middle-to-end of the Eighteenth Century. During this era, the “diamyo” were required to spend every second year living in Edo (Tokyo) where some shoguns had collections of rare Camellias gathered from all over Japan. It is possible that some diamyos and samurai from Higo brought the original Higo-type camellias home with them from Edo. The Higo samurai admired the “simplicity, sturdiness and magnificence” of these Camellias and kept growing and improving them amongst themselves for successive generations.

After 1867, the Samurai were disbanded and their Camellia culture declined. A society, called the “Hana Ren”, had been formed by some samurai to “preserve, hand down and create the wonderful Higo flower.” They managed to preserve around 100 varieties, but the Civil War of 1877 took its toll, as did the disastrous effects of World War 11. Kumamoto was reduced to ashes. Kyoto alone was left intact. At the same time the Japanese government ordered all ornamental gardens to be destroyed and fields of beans and other vegetables planted in their stead to feed the people.

In 1958, The Higo Camellia Society was formed in Kumamoto with the intention of reviving the cultural heritage of the Higo Camellia. The untiring efforts of its members in collecting remaining varieties (some from cemeteries), unifying variety names, searching for mother trees, selecting excellent varieties and improving the quality of others, have resulted in the increase of the number of Higo varieties to the 120 we have today.

In 1974, the City of Kumamoto, by popular referendum, decided on the Higo Camellia as the symbol of the city and its history.

(The information in this article has been gleaned from several sources: “Higo Camellia”. Franco Ghirardi; “The Higo Camellia”, an adaption of a lecture given to the Spanish Camellia Society by Shigeo Matsumoto found on ICS Website; “What Camellia is That?” Stirling Macoboy; “The Ancient Camellias of Samurais” <www.higocamellia.it/page6.html>