Roughly 120 species of evergreen trees and shrubs from eastern Asian belong in the botanical genus Camellia. Camellias are grown for both their economic and ornamental value. Tea camellia (Camellia sinensis) is the source for beverage tea. For their beauty of flowers, species Camellia japonica, Camellia reticulata and Camellia sasanqua grow in gardens across the temperate world. All camellias produce flowers, and as angiosperms, produce seeds in a multi-chambered fruit capsule.
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Camellia plants grow slowly and take considerable time to reach a size to finally produce their first flowers. Rather than raising camellias from seed, horticulturists asexually propagate these woody plants from cuttings. However, allowing camellia blossoms to be pollinated by insects leads to production of a seed pod, more accurately a capsule, that creates new plants with variable genetic qualities. Camellia trees bloom anytime from fall to mid-spring. Fertilised flower ovaries develop into fruit capsules over several months, ripening anytime from very late summer to mid-autumn.
Once the colourful petals drop away from flowers, the base of the bloom remains on the branch tip. The ovary of a camellia is multi-chambered, with three to five compartments called locules. The camellia ovary swells and matures over the spring and summer, usually remaining olive green, but in some species turn bright tomato red. Inside a capsule, each loculus houses one or several seeds. Depending on pollination effectiveness, some locules may abort. A typical size of a camellia fruit capsule is 1/3 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter.
Seeds inside camellia capsules become exposed to soil and the elements when the capsule dries and opens or fully drops to the ground and decomposes. Each seed looks like a tiny globe or multi-sided cylinder. The seed is brown to black in colour and 1/8 to 1/4 in size, varying by species. The embryo inside the seed remains viable for a short time and dies if the seed is allowed to dry out. Refrigerating seed suspends degradation of the embryo, so it can sprout several month later once planted. The embryo is also rich in oils.
While not popular in the West, Chinese and other eastern Asian societies relish the use of camellia oil in both cooking and making cosmetics and perfumes. Camellia oil is also known as tea seed oil or tea oil. Typically, it's the seeds of species Camellia oleifera that are cold-pressed to yield the light-coloured, aromatic and nutritious oil. In localised areas of East Asia, oil is also made from the seeds of Camellia chekiangoleosa, Camellia drupifera and Camellia reticulata.
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