Camellia japonica

These lovely shrubs (originating in China, Korea and Japan) take centre-stage in June and July, many continuing to bloom until August and even September, providing excellent material for vases. The exquisitely formed flowers are probably at their best in winter, as they can be rapidly ruined by some of the warm days of late winter and early spring. A shallow bowl of floating camellia blooms is pretty for indoor decoration in winter; a similar outdoor effect can be achieved in a birdbath. The form of the flowers can be single, semi-double (with prominent central stamens), anemone-form, double (with a distinct central cluster of petals or petaloids), informal double (a ruffled mass of petals usually obscuring the stamens) or formal double (many layers of petals and a bud centre).

Many can eventually reach 5-7m in height if unpruned, although some are naturally more compact. The shrubs can be used in an informal woodland shrubbery or to create effective and substantial screens in the garden, contributing to the enduring structure of the design. Where a single specimen is employed however, a Camellia can often look better if it is trained as a small tree on a single trunk from the start. Lower branches can be removed and a more open canopy created by thinning of some of the upper branches once the plant has matured. Old Camellia can be rejuvenated to produce a similar effect, especially those encroaching on windows or pathways. Two such 'trees' can be trained on either side of a front gate to create a welcoming entrance, or a small group of them can provide a canopy for other shade-loving plants. Compact cultivars can be grown in tubs; and camellias can also be trained as standards for a formal effect. Some camellias are even suited to bonsai!

Position: On the whole, Camellia japonica, especially those with pale-coloured flowers, need to be grown in partial or dappled shade. Most are best shielded from hot afternoon sun and winds during the warmer months, when they will appreciate shade cast by fences, buildings or suitably distant trees. Most also need to be protected from direct morning sun in winter, which can damage the flowers by burning them through the dew which collects on the petals at night. Some of the bright red and bright pink cultivars, however, are able to withstand this effect. Complete shade is not the best position for Camellia japonica to produce their flowers, as they need some filtered sun during the middle of the day in December and January in order that buds may be set for the following winter's display.

Growing conditions and care: They flourish best in a free-draining, slightly acidic soil (pH 5.5-6) which is rich in humus. They like moisture in spring and summer but hate sodden soil, which can rot their roots, so they must have good drainage. They should be fertilised with a special camellia food in early spring and again in summer, and a water-soluble fertiliser is beneficial if applied every month or couple of months from early spring til early autumn. Alternatively, use a slow release fertiliser in early spring, which will provide enough food for six months. They do need regular watering in their early years; once established they become fairly tough. They do like some extra moisture at flowering time, and blooming is most prolific in years where there has been plenty of rain. A shallow mulch of compost or cow manure applied in early spring will protect the roots from summer heat, as well as slowing evaporation of water from the soil and providing humus and some nutrients. Camellia have shallow fibrous roots which dislike disturbance, and they do not thrive if planted near aggressively greedy established trees such as Jacaranda, maples or Liquidambar. Pot-grown specimens should be given good quality potting mix suitable for acid-loving plants in a reasonably large pot, watered regularly and given the same fertilising regime as garden-grown ones.

Pruning: Any pruning can be carried out in after flowering in late winter or early spring. Thinning of overcrowded branches can enhance flowering by allowing light into the bush, which also promotes better air circulation and reduces the incidence of pest and disease build-up. The overall height of the shrub can be reduced by removing taller branches low down within the shrub at their points of origin, rather than by giving the plant an all-over haircut. Hedges should be pruned after flowering and again before Christmas. If you want to move a camellia to a different position, it is best to do this in June or July. Prune straight after the move by one-third and keep the plant moist. Applications of Seasol will help the plant cope with the move.

Pests, diseases and propagation: There are few pests which attack Camellia. Scale insects can be controlled with white oil. If mites attack the shrubs, it may be a sign that they are planted in too much shade. In this case, try to prune the shrub to let a little more light into its centre. The main disease is a fungus which causes rootrot, but if the shrub is in a well-drained position and not over-watered, it should not succumb to this. To propagate a favourite cultivar, try taking a semi-hardwood cutting in December or January. Keep the cutting moist and in a shady place.

Some cultivars have brilliant red flowers which blaze on winter days, the petals often enhanced by bunches of yellow stamens, and some of these red ones can stand sunnier positions than the paler-flowered types. The vigorous 'Grand Slam' (semi-double to anemone form with glowing deep red blooms), and 'Moshio' (synonym 'Flame', semi-double bright red flower) are examples. 'Moshio' can be grown in tubs.

Some of the well-loved pastel cultivars include 'Debutante' (soft pink, informal double flower), 'Desire' (large formal double flowers which are pale pink with a deeper pink edge), 'Lady Loch' (large informal double, pale pink bloom edged with white and splashes of deep pink), 'Lovelight' (large semi-double, pure white flower with rounded petals), 'Nuccio's Gem' (large white formal double bloom) and 'Mrs D. W. Davis' (semi-double, large pale blush pink bloom). An unusually coloured cultivar is 'Gwenneth Morey', an anemone-flowered form, which is cream with pale yellow overtones in the centre; 'Brushfield's Yellow' is similar. 'Desire', 'Nuccio's Gem and 'Brushfield's Yellow' are compact cultivars suitable for tub culture.

Some cultivars also more vibrant pink colours: 'Drama Girl' has one of the largest flowers, with deep rose pink semi-double flowers. Other favourites include 'Great Eastern' (semi-double form, deep rose-red to purple in heavy soils), 'Guilio Nuccio' (very large coral rose semi-double blooms) and 'Carter's Sunburst Pink' (semi-double to informal double deep pink). Some of the deeper pink cultivars can tolerate more sun than the paler sorts.

Winter is the very best time to go to a specialist nursery. They can also be seen at the former home of the late Camellia expert Professor Waterhouse, Eryldene, in Gordon when it is open for viewing. There are also several public gardens featuring Camellias, including Lisgar Gardens at Hornsby, and the EG Waterhouse National Camellia Gardens at Caringbah.

Flowers in May, June, July, August.

 Out now in my Sydney Garden.