by John Richmond
© 2006; All Rights Reserved.
Winter moves early into spring in South West England. The climate is mild, the air moist and clean, and the soils generally acid. This provides a perfect climate for camellias, the queens of the spring flowering shrubs. They thrive here. Visit many of the older established gardens in Devon and Cornwall and you'll see camellias of tree size, glossy evergreens studded with exotic flowers. The first western travellers to China and Japan must have seen these plants as impressive. No wonder they were eager to bring them into cultivation.
Success did not prove easy. Camellia flowers are so impressively subtropical and appear so early in the year that the first imports were cosseted in well-heated greenhouses. They failed, as mine failed when I tried to grow one as a houseplant. Many of the decorative species and hybrids are reasonably hardy plants. They like cool winter conditions. Camellia japonica, the first to be imported, is rated hardy to -15° C / 5° F - tough enough to survive in sheltered Zone 7 gardens. Others are a little more tender - but not by much. Once adventurous gardeners began growing their treasures outside, in the woodland conditions that were similar to those of their native forests, they thrived. Hundred year old specimens of Camellia japonica regularly top 20 or 30 feet in height in favoured Cornish gardens.
I fell in love with them early in my gardening life. To me they have all the attributes a specimen shrub should posses. Year round interest from the glossy, evergreen leaves, attractive habits, relatively slow growth rates - a boon in a small garden - and spectacular flowers at a time of year when there is a need for flamboyance. No wonder they are popular, both with gardeners and with hybridisers.
There are thousands of Camellia japonica varieties. Flower colours range from white, through pale to rich pink and to red - or combinations of all three. Flower shapes have as much variety as any rose, from singles with a boss of yellow stamens, to ornate doubles, some loosely arranged, some so formally arranged they could be carved from blocks of coloured wax. Carried in succession over a two month period, usually in mid to late spring but earlier in mild climates and with some varieties, they only have two main problems. Frosted flowers that are thawed too quickly die unattractively - and spent flowers are not shed from the shrub.
Camellia japonica, like most camellias, needs a site shaded from morning sun, sheltered from icy winds, and with moisture in the soil sufficient to prevent bud drop in autumn and winter. In my 50%deg; North, cool, often cloudy summer climate I have my plants in full sun to promote flower bud formation. Further south, with hotter summers, they need more shade.
Happier to flower in a shadier spot are varieties of Camellia x williamsii. For my climate these are the best camellias. I grow half a dozen - and am intent on adding more. They begin to flower earlier, flower more profusely after cool summers, and shed their flowers when spent, littering the ground with colourful petals. I'm writing this in early February. On my way to work I pass Camellia x williamsii varieties already in flower. In my rear garden "St Ewe", a single flowered rose pink variety, and "Anticipation", a well doubled deep rose coloured flower, have buds within days of opening. In the front garden "Donation", arguably the finest camellia ever raised, and the largest of my shrubs, will wait a little longer to begin flowering - but continue for three months and smother the shrub with its blossom. Two others, "Debbie" and the yellow variegated "Golden Spangles", will fill the gaps between the early and late flowering varieties.
At some point in this sequence "Cornish Snow" will flower. This is a hybrid beween C.saluenensis and C.cuspidata, good plants in their own right, but without the attractions of the japonica and williamsii varieties. Their offspring is an exception. It makes a rather twiggy bush, still small in my own garden, but already capable of flowering profusely. Every branch carries a multitude of comparatively small white flowers, a magical effect on larger plants.
I've also acquired one plant of the autumn flowering Camellia sasanqua, a red flowered variety, "Dazzler". In mild climates these are definitely worth their garden space, providing flowers in the months leading up to Christmas. Hardy to -15° C / 15° F, they begin the camellia season with a flourish, providing an appetiser for the main course of japonica and x williamsii varieties. In South West England I need to grow mine against a warm wall to provide the heat for flower formation but in hotter summer climates this will be less of a problem.
Despite their flamboyance camellias are quite easy to grow. Pests are rarely a problem on healthy plants. They need acid soils - but not as acid as rhododendrons. Slightly acid to neutral, pH 6 - 7 is fine. Above pH 7 and the leaves can turn yellow and become chlorotic. Growth is fairly slow (averaging a foot a year) - but to compensate they flower well from an early age, and rarely require pruning until they reach considerable sizes. They adapt well to containers - providing they have acid container soil and an even watering regime. If they dry out flower buds will not be formed or drop if they have already formed. If you want early, perfect flowers container grown plants can be brought into a cool greenhouse for a spectacular early spring display. Propagation is by early summer cuttings, taken while the wood is still hardening. In many cases these will flower the next spring. Fertilising should be moderate. These are not gross feeders, but elegant plants of open woodland, happiest in humus rich soils with an annual mulch of compost or leaf mould.
Every year since I moved into my present garden I've bought some new camellias. Small plants, rooted cuttings mostly, but cheap to buy, easy to grow, and with the reward of spectacular flowers from the start of their garden lives. As the garden matures they'll take up more of my limited space. I'll not complain. Such beauty deserves some sacrifices.
About the Author John Richmond is a keen gardener who lives and works in the South West of England. He has a scientific background as a professional ecologist. He has written occasional articles for gardening and other magazines in Britain since 1984, specializing in garden wildlife issues and hardy plants. Correspondence from other gardeners is always welcome.