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Locarno, the lady of the camellias: the camellia: sensuously shaped, richly hued, synonymous with chic (it was Coco Chanel's favourite), and it flowers in the greyest, coldest period of the year. If that weren't enough it's also evergreen and dead easy to grow. Little wonder that the camellia is one of the world's favourite blooms.

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This fabulous flower arrived in Europe sometime in the 18th century, thanks to a Moravian, Jesuit missionary and botanist named Georg Josef Kamel, who was also known as 'Camellus'. Three hundred years is but a blink of an eye in the plant's history: it has grown--in the wild or by cultivation--in China, Japan and Korea for thousands of years.

Pretty soon amateur gardeners and horticulturists all over Europe were getting excited about it, though it took a while for its hardiness to become apparent. By the 19th century, Lake Maggiore was developing a reputation as the place for early spring displays, thanks largely to its favourable climate and a profusion of large lakeside villas, landscaped grounds and teams of keen gardeners.

The camellia is the symbol of Locarno, a city with a century of affection for the flower. An international festival dedicated to the plant takes place each spring--and has done so, almost continually, since 1924. The Camellia Festival attracts around 10,000 flower-fanciers from across Europe, and a good many fellow-Swiss pop down for the day. In late March, sunshine and cloudless blue skies are almost guaranteed.

The weather can play unexpected tricks, though: Last year's mild winter meant that the camellias burst into bloom weeks early and there was little left to display by festival time. For the first time in its history, the big event was cancelled--"it was a very hard decision to make," admits Fabio Bonetti, director of the tourism office of Lago Maggiore.

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Future festivals will, from this year, have a fixed date (towards the end of March) and a permanent location: Locarno's new Parco delle Camelie.

Park setting

The Camellia park, which opened in 2007, is happily situated on the banks of Lake Maggiore, shaded by poplars and oaks.

I ask Fabio Bonetti about the background of the site--and "passion" is his answer ... though he's quick to point out that it isn't his passion he's talking about.

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Indeed, the story behind the park does have Hollywood potential: a couple of gardeners have a deep love of camellias and, while working for the Locarno Parks Department, they spend every bit of free time fiddling about with the flowers, experimenting with cuttings and propagating--all the things gardeners do best.

Over the years they garner a reputation for themselves, although there's still no place the camellias can call home. Then, one day, the Locarno City Council endows a permanent site and our gardeners get to work full-time with their dream blooms.

An incredible 520 varieties of the plant currently grow here, 400 of them classified, all under the care of Locarno's head gardener Daniele Marcacci. Once the park is finished, it'll be the biggest garden dedicated solely to camellias in Europe, complementing the nearby Parco Botanico del Gambarogno.

Behind this garden, too, is passion: this time the passion belongs to Otto Eisenhut who, in 17,000 square metres, has created a botanical garden that offers points of interest all year. Strolling through the park takes around an hour and comes highly recommended for winter-weary or tired city souls, with 950 varieties of camellia and 350 types of azalea, magnolia, rhododendron and peony, all blooming against the backdrop of Lake Maggiore.

It is open year-round, but the most vivid displays are from the end of March through early April.

The Camellia Festival is the first important event of the year for Locarno, and while keen gardeners come here in their droves, even the horticulturally challenged find plenty to do--even if it is only basking in the glorious spring sun for which Ticino is famous.

This year's festival will feature musical performances and a bonsai exhibition, in addition to the regular ikebana displays and Japanese tea ceremonies.

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Festival info

Camellia Festival in Locarno

March 20-23, 2008

Parco delle Camelie

via G. Respini, Locarno

Information: camelie@maggiore.ch and www.camellia.ch

Parco Botanico del Gambarogno

Open year-round: 9:00-18:00

Closed on Tuesdays

Information: info@gambarognoturismo.ch and www.parcobotanico.ch

Fun camellia factoids

The Camellia Sinensis is in fact the tea plant, producing both black and green tea.

The seeds of the Camellia Oleifeira are used to produce a light oil which Japanese Geishas would apply to their skin and hair. As a cooking oil, it's low in saturated fat and has a nutty, smoky flavour.

Camellias generally come in hues from white to pink and red and always have yellow stamens. Camellias also have many types of bloom: single; semi-double; anemone; peony form; rose form double and formal double.

There are many species of camellia but the kind you see in gardens in Europe will be mostly the common camellia japonica, the early-flowering camellia sasanqua, the large-flowered camellia reticulata and the camellia saluenensis.

Koreans have used camellias at weddings as far back as 1200 B.C. The type used symbolised faithfulness and longevity.

Coco Chanel frequently wore a white camellia and the company often uses the flower in their designs.
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Title Annotation:EVENT
Author:Golini, Catherine
Publication:Swiss News
Date:Mar 1, 2008
Words:832
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