Camellias in Sydney

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Camellia japonica Guilio Nuccio grew in my childhood garden

One of the strongest memories I have of the garden of my childhood is of the many Camellia japonica shrubs that grew there. There were around 50 of them, all planted by my mother over the five decades she spent living at the house. In wintertime, the garden was decorated by a profusion of their sumptuous blooms, and they were often picked and floated in bowls of water in the garden or inside the house, or given away by the basketful to visiting friends. By the time I had begun to be interested in gardening, they were already mature shrubs - trees almost, giving the garden such a feeling of shelter and permanence. I couldn't believe a flower so glamorous and exotic could bloom in the dead of winter!

Camellia japonica Fire Dance at the nursery

I had no idea then that Sydney has one of the best climates in the world for growing these beautiful shrubs. When I moved to my present garden, I began planting some for myself, and with their lush, glossy leaves and dramatic flowers, they fit in well with my semitropical-style garden. I recently spent a morning with some gardening friends at a long-established Sydney camellia nursery, Camellias R Us at Glenorie, in north-west Sydney, run by Bill and Joanne Parker. It was a joy to walk amongst the multitude of different Camellia specimens in bloom at the nursery, including many of the one that once grew in my mother's garden; and to learn from Bill what has been happening in the world of camellias.

I didn't know, for example, that no new Camellia specimens can be imported into Australia any more. This is to protect our plants from horrible pests and diseases, such as camellia petal blight, which would ruin their flowers. Attention has turned to trying to preserve as many as possible of the old Camellia cultivars that have been grown in Sydney over the past two centuries.

Camellia Anemoniflora growing at Camden Park NSW

Sydney has a long and important history in growing camellias. Charles Fraser, the first superintendent at Sydney's Royal Botanic Garden, imported four camellias in 1823 and grew them there. The next camellias to reach Australia were in a shipment in 1826 for the garden of Elizabeth Bay House, owned by Colonial Secretary Alexander Macleay. Another consignment arrived in 1831, destined for William Macarthur at Camden Park, including the cultivar 'Anemoniflora' (once known as the 'waratah camellia' because of its resemblance to that native flower), which still grows there today, believed to be the oldest camellia plant in Australia. Macarthur bred a number of seedlings from his importations, which were grown throughout the colony: 'Aspasia Macarthur', with large cream flowers striped and blotched with pink was possibly the first Australian-bred cultivar. Nurserymen William Guilfoyle and TW Shepherd collected and bred camellias for sale; the plants were immensely popular amongst Sydney gardeners in the second half of the 19th century. By the end of that century, however, the camellia boom had burst here and elsewhere in the world, and the number of different camellias available in Sydney nurseries dropped dramatically. Around the middle of the 20th century (just when Mum was planting out her garden!), the fortunes of camellias were revived, with the importation of different species and cultivars, and much hybridisation being carried out.

Camellia Eryldene Excelsis growing at Eryldene, Gordon NSW

Much of the resurgence of interest in camellias in Sydney can be attributed to the work of Professor EG Waterhouse, who raised and named a large number of seedlings at his historic home Eryldene. The garden there has a magnificent collection of historic camellias. He established Camellia Grove Nursery in St Ives, wrote several books on camellias, co-founded a society dedicated to them, and championed these plants for the Sydney climate.

Camellia sasanqua Hiryu, growing at the nursery

Sadly, as Sydney undergoes its current massive housing development, many mature, iconic camellias are being destroyed in the process. Bill Parker is involved with a group known as Camellia Ark Australia, set up in 2016 save Australia's endangered camellias. The group seeks out, identifies and propagates rare camellias, and also helps local communities to conserve heritage camellias in their areas. Bill recently helped save six mature specimens of Camellia sasanqua 'Hiryu' from a hedge planted by Professor Waterhouse at Gordon railway station 60 years ago; and he also help save 90 heritage camellias from the Camellia Grove Nursery site, which was being redeveloped into an aged care facility.

Camellia sinensis growing at the nursery

Increasing housing development in Sydney has also meant smaller gardens. During our visit to Bill's nursery, we learned how camellias can be included in more compact spaces: such as espaliering of camellias on a fence or on a trellis in a narrow passageway. Camellias can also grow in pots in courtyards or on balconies; it's also possible to train potted specimens as an attractive standard. Sasanqua camellias can grow in sun or part-shade; the japonica type needs a filtered shade position, with protection from the morning sun in winter, which can ruin the flowers. For hedges in small gardens, various small-leaved sasanqua camellia cultivars are ideal, and can be clipped to shape. There is a such sity of flower colours and shapes amongst camellias, and even some scented varieties. Bill now also promotes the species camellia that tea is derived from: Camellia sinensis, with instructions for how to pick and process the leaves at home, to create white, green or black tea!

My friends and I had a really enjoyable morning at the nursery. It is open to the public from Monday to Thursday 7 am till 4 pm, and Fridays 7 am till 1 pm. It is an excellent outing for a garden club - contact Bill for more information. And you can see him on ABC TV's Gardening Australia this coming Friday 29 June 2018!