The Lady of the Camellias

Rubra Plean camellia
Rubra Plena, illustrated by Carl and Napoléon Baumann

The inspiration for Verdi’s opera, La traviata, was the true story of Marie Duplessis, also known as la dame aux camélias—the lady of the camellias. In her Parisian residence, Marie is said to have had a room filled with vine-laden trellises and baskets of fresh flowers; from these, she would regularly choose a camellia to wear with her ensemble. An imported and exotic flower, this was easily the most expensive corsage that could be worn at that time, and was virtually synonymous with the young courtesan who died of tuberculosis in 1847.

Buff or Hume’s Blush Camellia: Myrtle Leaved Camellia, illustrated by Clara Maria Pope for “A monograph on the genus Camellia” by Samuel Curtis

Camellias are originally from Asia, where they were cultivated in the gardens of China and Japan for centuries before they were ever seen in Europe. In addition to producing delicately scented flowers in a variety of colors, the most famous member of their species is the tea plant, Camelia sinensis, whose leaves and leaf buds are used to produce many types of tea including white green, oolong and black varieties.

The Europeans’ first exposure to camellias may have been through their representations inpaintings and wallpaper, where they were often shown growing in porcelain pots. Wealthy patrons of the British East India Company began to import varieties to satisfy their horticultural interests—the double-red camellia known as Rubra Plena was first imported by Sir Robert Preston in 1794, and in 1806 a pale pink variety was nicknamed “Lady Hume’s Blush” in honor of Amelia, the wife of Sir Abraham Hume.

The greatest camellia scholar of the nineteenth century was the wealthy Italian priest, the Abbé Laurent Berlese (1784-1863), who conducted his studies in his private greenhouse in Paris. The popularity of this lovely and fragrant blossom quickly spread beyond the realm of the passionate gardener, and in the 1840s, the camellia became the height of fashion as the luxury flower for elegant women. The camellia was also a favorite of the late 20th century fashion icon Coco Chanel. After her passing in 1971, the flower has continued to be used as a signature for the House of Chanel collections by chief designer Karl Lagerfeld.

Chanel Fashion Show

Chanel’s Fall 2008 Paris fashion show; photo by Elisabeth Fourmont for Chicagomag.com

La traviata is sponsored by the Applied Materials Foundation.