During 2018 I took a trip to an enchanted land. Reflections of my visit to Galicia are told in four parts: the land, the camellias, the holy city of pilgrimage. And, finally, my travel back to reality, brightened by portraits of Galician camellias. Specific gardens are discussed in two entries on Galicia under Great Gardens.
Camellias: The Flower of Galicia
Such happy plants! We visited during March, when japonica camellias and their cousins, the robust reticulatas, were boasting their best. They added elegance to gardens, embraced ancient chapels, anchored avenues, strewed blossoms across public squares, sheltered coastal buildings, wound along paths, surprised us around corners.
They bloomed with gusto, in loosely trimmed hedges, as young specimens barely able to support mature blossoms, as buxom middle-agers, as century-old trees. Older shrubs and trees were sometimes sheared to shape in formal settings, with masses of leafless twigs on the interior supporting outer shells of blossoms and leaves.
They grew in full sun with or without protection from the elements, though leaves, still healthy sometimes turned bronzy or yellow, and a recent storm had damaged some blooms. Supplemental irrigation did not seem critical, except perhaps in the driest and hottest of summers or for the newly planted.
Thinning plants for healthy air circulation so the proverbial dove can fly among the branches did not seem to be part of the playbook.
I saw no signs of the pests that can take the shine off our camellias: tea scale or twig dieback, for instance.
Though I’m sure there was regular tidying, nobody mentioned conscientious rakingof fallen blossoms to prevent blossom blight and assuage gardener-guilt.
Full disclosure: These are my cursory observations after only a few days. The gardeners who must do the work of maintaining camellias might have different stories. Still, after seeing hundreds of camellias in good health, I feel a certain confidence in my conclusions.
Galicia, half a world away from the Orient where camellias grew up, is the home away from home for these immigrants.
It is a kind of utopia for them.
Balmy coastal weather. Gentle terrain for fine drainage. Fertile, acid soil eroded from granite bedrock.
Misty days and nights. Ample rainfall.
Mild winters by our standards, and dry but generally cool summers.
Gardeners, Are you ready to pick up your plot and move to Galicia?
What’s good for camellias is also good for other plants. That is probably why so many exotic plants survived during plant-mania of the 18th and 19th centuries.
That’s when happy, minding-its-own-business vegetation was uprooted from home to endure rugged voyages across oceans and begin the experiment of assimilating (partly to please collectors who coveted the new plant on the next ship).
And we gardeners today think we are plantaholics! Be comforted.
We have simply inherited the addiction via some gardener DNA mutated long long ago.
Most camellias came to Galicia as youngsters propagated from plants brought back by Portuguese explorers.
If you prefer an alternative tale, you can hang on to the legend that one day an itinerant monk brought a magic flower to Galicia. It grew and flourished in the land, and it was called the camellia. In reality, the camellia was named after Jesuit botanist-herbalist-pharmacist George Kamel, who lived and worked in the Philippines.
Cows like Galicia, too. Someone once called this “the land of one million cows.” There is even a cow that is special to Galicia. What do cows have in common with camellias? Well, apparently, what’s good for camellias is good for cows. Cows give gifts, too. Maybe those new camellias got cow-gifts.
The point is, the camellia might have been the queen of blooms, but it was coming into a farmyard. An elegant farmyard, perhaps, and it was probably potted up initially, but I bet it was a farmyard where happy cows were hanging around.
Here is how it began. The gardens we visited are called “pazos,” galician for the Latin palatium, meaning palace, or, loosely, manor house. Many of them were fortresses in the middle ages, but some time around the 17th and 18th centuries, feudalism lost its allure. A new age of exploration and discovery set the stage for a new wave of agriculture. Prosperity attended a fragile peace, particularly for nobles who lived in pazos.
Fortresses became manor houses with large landholdings that practiced what we would call today an ancient form of “sustainable agriculture” — a reasonable assumption, since there were no global monopolies distributing fertilizer or pesticide.
They were like miniature towns, these pazos, self-sufficient properties with permanent structures built out of always-on-tap granite. Granite! Not wood. Not plaster. Granite. It lies beneath our feet, ancient bedrock, toilsome to the chisel but practically indestructible.
Dwellings, outbuildings, niches, benches, steps, fountains, stone crosses (often with carved figures of Christ and the Virgin Mary), walls, and supports for grape vines — all granite. For a devout people, a chapel of granite was requisite.
Horreos raised up on granite pilings with stone crosses on peaked roofs stored grain. They are everywhere, their size and variety limited only by space and ingenuity of the builder. Round dovecotes roughly hewn of granite housed pigeons or doves that provided meat, eggs, and fertilizer.
Gardens and orchards served up fruits and vegetables. The albarino grape, growing wild and free until it was supported on granite pillars supplied enough wine for family and friends.
Aside: Until someone much later said this is good stuff. With a little special attention we could tame those vineyards to produce even more wine — and income. Today, Galician wines are produced under strict quality control. Members of our tour group will readily vouch for the quality of the albarino wine we drank each day.
Enter the exotic camellia and its associates from around the world: rhododendron, boxwood, euonymus, hydrangea, cryptomeria, cypress, juniper, cedar. All familiars in our gardens, too.
Land that had evolved from fortress to farm made space for the pleasure garden, oasis of beauty and leisure and entertainment for the household. (The cows had moved to green pastures by then.)
Gradually, the pazo evolved by custom into three distinct elements: the “reservado” around the house with orchard and garden for the family, the farmland, and, on the outskirts, the forest.
It’s no accident then, that our tour listed visits to “pazos” and not simply gardens. Our group enjoyed visits to some elegant homes that echoed of history and old customs and generations of family. But the pazo is a union between home and garden, architecture and landscape. It is today a mosaic of land use, at once elegant and pastoral, that fuses the color, fragrance and form of exotics with the land that is Galicia. There is no concrete in these gardens.
Unlike gardens measuring only a century or two, or even gardens with history, like Florence’s Boboli, or that most loved Parisian garden, Luxembourg, these pazos speak of romance and great age. Of mossy benches and boxwood, of leisurely paths and ancient trees, of rustic stone steps and fountains and statuary. Does it come down to climate, that moisty misty hazy blanket that snugs this land with the gentle patina of age? Or is it that pithy granite that binds with its bones? Or both.
Of manicured lawns there are none. Instead, casual washes of green, speckled with wild flowers, create vistas and organize groups of plants.
The gardens we visited lie along a part of the coast known as the rias Baix (low estuaries in southwest Galicia). Each garden is independent, but they are all part of the Route of the Camellia, which is maintained and promoted by Spain and the province of Pontevedra. They promise that 8,000 varieties of camellias, that “most beautiful flower under the heavens,” lie along this route. This includes many hybrids and species not often seen.
In fact, our group got to see some of these blooms on display when we visited a camellia show being set up. I couldn’t help comparing shows in the US, where displays are formal and camellias precisely positioned, with exhibits in this show at Castle Sotomaier.
Formal groupings lined tables here, too, but imagination took the reins. Exhibits had themes ranging from classic to whimsical. They would be judged on creativity and quality of blooms. Look for the yellow Camellia nitidissima.
And finally, I must tell you about the greatest of all camellias.
The Pazo Quinones de Leon is an elegant park and museum in Vigo that is open to the public. You can stroll through the rose garden (in season), the French garden, formal, with parterres, and the more relaxed English garden.
There’s a pond with ducks, a miniature model of the pazo on an island in the pond, and when we were there camellias and rhododendrons and early azaleas were blooming.
What, you ask, is so special about a certain camellia here? Well, it is probably the grandest and the oldest camellia in Galicia. It is over 200 years old and its trunk at ground level is 24 inches in diameter. That’s a measure of over six feet around. The camellia is called Methuselah. A miniature army of boxwoods stands guard around Methuselah to give it the majesty that this survivor deserves.
Once you’ve seen this plant, the debate over whether camellias are bushes or trees becomes moot. With camellias, it takes a long time, much more time than we gardeners have. A humbling thought. Like heavenly light that takes millennia to reach us, the gardens in Galicia are a tableau of time.
Next: Part III, Santiago de Compostela
For more about camellias and Galicia, visit the links below.