Camellias originate from China, Japan and Southeast Asia. They are one of the oldest flowers known to humans. They are hardy, evergreen and have many sizes and shapes suitable for many types of garden situations, from specimen trees to ground covers, containers or hedges. The species most widely grown as ornamentals are the sasanqua, japonica and reticulata. The first of these to flower every year in autumn and winter are the sasanquas. Japonica camellias are generally taller than sasanquas and have larger, more leathery leaves. Their flowers are larger too and they flower from winter to late spring and are generally slower growing. In New Zealand camellias bloom from late August to late September. The Camellia japonica alba plena 'Kate Sheppard' has become a symbol of New Zealand women’s suffrage since it was first introduced from Taranaki in 1993.
E.M. Smith with Taranaki camellia in his buttonhole
Taranaki had a large role to play in the political symbolism of the camellia. In early July 1892 Edward M. Smith, an armourer and Liberal Party member of Parliament representing New Plymouth, offered to provide any members who supported women's suffrage with a "Taranaki camellia.” In a newspaper article on a debate over the use of ironsand of Taranaki: "There is a general flavour of camellia about the House. The centre of the camellia is Mr. E.M. Smith, who has brought down a host of specimens from that favoured place Taranaki. The rage of camellia goes right round the House, marking many button-holes with red and white." On 21 July Smith wore "a lovely Taranaki camellia," when honored in a Parliamentary discussion for his work in manufacturing steel. In July 1893, he still wore his "Taranaki camillia" when speaking in the House.
On 12 September 1893 a deputation from the Wellington Women's Franchise League visited the Hon. Richard Oliver (representing Otago) and presented twenty white camellia flowers, one for each of those members of the House of Representatives who had voted on 8 September in favour of women gaining the vote. Each camellia had attached the name of the gentleman for whom it was intended, and was tied with white ribbon. (The bill had passed by 20 votes in favour to 18 against.) The deputation gave a short address: "Please accept this white favour, emblem of our esteem and gratitude. Your honourable names will long be remembered favourably in the history of this colony in relation to the passing of the Women's Franchise Bill, and the benefits accorded thereby."
Pressure against women's suffrage at the national level renewed, and some members of the Legislative Council petitioned the governor to withhold his consent. In what was later called "a battle of the camellias" or sometimes the "battle of the buttonholes," on 15 September 1893 Wellington anti-Women's Franchise League presented to the Hon. William Campbell Walker (representing Canterbury) a basket of red camellias tied with red ribbon for their supporters to wear in their coat buttonholes. They explained in their address: "A committee of ladies of the city of Wellington respectfully request hon. members of the Legislative Council who spoke and voted against the franchise being granted to the women of the colony to accept this small token of their regard and esteem for their efforts to allow us to remain in our proper sphere apart from politics."
The Victorian Language of Flowers names Camellia flowers as signifying perseverance, love, devotion, and a great admiration for someone. They also represent perfection and faith. Why white? The Women's Christian Temperance Union formed in the 1880s and brought into New Zealand in 1885 used a white ribbon emblem (in contrast with but complementary to the pre-existing Blue Ribbon badge) that the color choice connotes social purity that femininity could bring to the political arena. In Victorian flower language popular at the time, a red camellia was seen as passion. To the Victorians, red camellias symbolized that the recipient was the “flame” of the giver’s heart and who was unable to stop thinking of them.
The national preparations for the centennial of the winning of the right to vote financed many communities to create new public commemorations of this international first. In New Plymouth Karen Eagles and Donna Glendining asked camellia breeders Viv Joyce and her father Alf Gamlin to create a special paeony style style white camellia to be unveiled as part of the 1993 Suffrage Centennial Year. Alf had the name registered with the New Zealand Camellia Society, and Viv grew 300 of the white bushes in Manaia. The 'Kate Sheppard' camellia was officially launched at the Manaia Town Hall as part of the 1993 commemoration of women's suffrage, and then the new hybrids were planted all over Taranaki. Dame Cath Tizard, the first woman Governor-General of New Zealand, bought ten for Government House in Wellington. Parliament celebrated the centenary of women’s suffrage in 1993 with the planting of ‘Kate Sheppard’ white camellia shrubs in the grounds gifted by the National Council of Women of New Zealand. Many local clubs and communities used the planting of the white camellia as a symbol of their support for this international first in women's rights - Jill Pierce compiled many (if not all) of these sites in her book published in 1995 by the National Council of Women of New Zealand, The Suffrage Trail.
In another reference to the powerful meaning of the white camellia, the UN Women’s Empowerment Principles were launched in 2012 at Government House; New Zealand businesses and organisations signed up to the initiative and promising to use the seven principles (equal opportunity, inclusion and non-discrimination; health, safety and freedom from violence; education and training; enterprise development, supply chain and marketing practices; community leadership and engagement; and transparency, measuring and reporting) to guide them in implementing gender equality strategies. The White Camellia Awards honour businesses promoting gender equity through the Women's Empowerment Principles. The White Camellia Awards are jointly run by UN Women, the Human Rights Commission, Diversity Works, BPW New Zealand and Zonta.
For the Suffrage 125 celebrations in 2018, Whakatane artist Robyn Watchorn crafted a white camellia brooch for each of the former and current women MPs, and the women gathered for a photograph in the Parliamentary Library's Reading Room to respond to the photo of Richard Seddon and his male MPs taken in 1905. The Ministry of Women created the Suffrage 125 symbol that used the white camellia surrounded by a ring of suffrage purple and the number 125 includes a reference to the New Zealand koru as well. In a workbook published for public use by the Electoral Commission, "Your Voice, Your Choice: Votes for Women" included on pages 14-16 an activity that is useful for all ages - crafting a paper camellia to put in your own jacket buttonhole to show your support for women's right to vote.
"Me aro ki te hā o Hine-ahu-one. Pay heed to the mana of women."
Milestones in the political use of the white camellia in New Zealand
1877 - Kate Edger, the first woman BA graduate, was presented a white camellia at her graduation ceremony in Auckland.
1892 - Edward M. Smith, New Plymouth MP, offered to provide any members of Parliament who supported women's suffrage with a "Taranaki camellia."
1893 - On 12 September 1893 a deputation from the Wellington Women's Franchise League presented twenty white camellia flowers, one for each of those members of the House of Representatives who had voted on 8 September in favour of women gaining the vote. Then on 15 September Wellington anti-Women's Franchise League presented a basket of red camellias tied with red ribbon for their each of their supporters to wear in their coat buttonholes.
1894 - 19 September Napier WCTU organised community-wide celebrations of the anniversary of "our enfranchisement."
1895 - The WCTU local branches organised September 25 celebrations of the anniversary of the franchise in Kaiapoi and Christchurch.
1896 - Christchurch W.C.T.U. hosted a large meeting in the Art Gallery on 25 September to celebrate the third anniversary of the enfranchisement of the women of New Zealand.
1993 - The Camellia japonica alba plena 'Kate Sheppard' was first introduced from Taranaki and became thereafter the symbol of New Zealand women’s suffrage for the national celebration of the centennial anniversary.
2012 - The White Camellia Awards are initiated to honour businesses promoting gender equity through the UN Women's Empowerment Principles.
2018 - Hand-crafted white camellia brooches were given to all women MPs, and the Ministry of Women created the Suffrage 125 celebration logo featuring the white camellia.
Resources and Further Reading
"Political Jottings," New Zealand Times, Volume LIII, Issue 9645, 2 July 1892, Page 3: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/NZTIM18920702.2.31
"In the House," Lyttelton Times, Volume LXXVIII, Issue 9783, 21 July 1892, Page 5: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/LT18920721.2.30
"Political Jottings," New Zealand Times, Volume LIII, Issue 9661, 21 July 1892, Page 3: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/NZTIM18920721.2.32
"Political Gossip," Evening Star, Issue 9184, 13 July 1893, Page 2: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/ESD18930713.2.23
"Womanhood Suffrage," Evening Post, Volume XLVI, Issue 64, 13 September 1893, Page 3: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/EP18930913.2.41
"Parliamentary Notes," New Zealand Herald, Volume XXX, Issue 9306, 15 September 1893, Page 5: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/NZH18930915.2.27
"The Order of the Red Camellia," New Zealand Herald, Volume XXX, Issue 9307, 16 September 1893, Page 5: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/NZH18930916.2.28
"Caricatures, with names and nicknames... 'Ironsand' (Mr E M Smith)..." Supplement to the Auckland Weekly News, Christmas Number (12 December 1896), in Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Parliamentary_character_sketches,_1896.jpg
"Union and Temperance News," White Ribbon, Volume 1, Issue 4, October 1895, Page 6: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/periodicals/WHIRIB18951001.2.11
"Anniversary of Women’s Enfranchisement," White Ribbon, Volume 2, Issue 16, October 1896, Page 8: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/periodicals/WHIRIB18961001.2.15
"Camellia brooches acknowledge New Zealand’s 149 past and present women MPs," New Zealand Parliament (19 September 2018): https://www.parliament.nz/en/get-involved/features/camellia-brooches-acknowledge-new-zealand-s-149-past-and-present-women-mps/
"A symbol for Suffrage 125," New Zealand Minitatanga mō ngā Wāhine, Ministry for Women (2 February 2018): https://women.govt.nz/about/new-zealand-women/history/suffrage-125/symbol-suffrage-125
Jill Pierce, The Suffrage Trail: A guide to places, memorials and the arts commemorating New Zealand women (Wellington: NCWNZ, 1995).