Last Friday, a horribly gloomy winter's day, my spirits were lifted when I encountered a bouquet of miniature-flowered camellias at a get-together of keen gardeners. These gorgeous baby blooms are just emerging in gardens now, a delightful addition to the winter scene in Sydney. Totally different to their large and flamboyant cousins the japonica camellias, the miniatures have great appeal, with their massed profusion of dainty blooms. When the shrub is in full bloom, smothered in flowers, it is a sight to help shrug off the winter blues and to remind us of what a benign climate we really do live in, despite the bleakness of the current weather.
The little blooms almost have the appearance of fruit blossoms, and unlike most winter-flowering camellias, some of them are delightfully scented. They fit in well with other garden plants, particularly in a cottage garden-style or woodland setting. When the flowers fall from the shrub, they form a pretty carpet around its base. They can look very pretty floating in a bowl or a birdbath. Although the flowers may be small, the shrubs are generally not dwarf and will reach heights of 3-4 m or more, although their form is probably on the whole less ponderous and dense than japonica camellias, and they can be pruned to keep their height lower if desired. They have smaller leaves and more open growth, with elegant arching stems - which makes them suitable for espaliering on fences.
There are species of these shrubs, as well as a number resulting from hybrid crosses. Species include Camellia rosiflora (semi-double rose pink flowers), Camellia lutchuensis (fragrant white single flowers, held on willowy stems) and Camellia tsaii (subtly fragrant white flowers with a pink touch on the outer petals). Some favourite hybrids include 'Wirlinga Princess' (pale pink single to semi-double flowers with a touch of deeper pink), 'Fragrant Pink' (deep pink informal double with Osmanthus fragrance), 'Cinnamon Cindy' (upright shrub, white informal blooms with a touch of pale pink, cinnamon scent), 'Alpen Glo' (pale pink single to semi-double with bright pink edges), 'Blondy' (fragrant white anemone form opening from pale pink buds) and 'Gay Baby' (cerise-pink semi-double). 'Baby Bear' is a cute low-growing shrub to 1 m with tiny light pink single blooms, being ideal for small gardens where there is no space for any of the larger camellias and suitable for a tub.
Like most Camellia, these miniatures generally need to be grown in partial or dappled shade (though a few are more sun hardy) and 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. Many gardeners believe that fertilising these plants with a specific camellia food is very beneficial, and this is best applied in early spring and again in summer. A water-soluble fertiliser is can also be given every month or couple of months from early spring til early autumn. They do need regular watering in their early years; once established they become fairly tough. They do like some extra moisture at flowering time. 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.
Some companion plants for the miniature-flowered camellias, in bloom at the same time in a similar colour range, include snowflakes, violets, hellebores, Crassula multicava, Ruellia makoyana or even some of the shade-tolerant winter-blooming Salvia, such as S. dorisiana.
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Plants with dramatic shapes can provide form and interest during the winter months.
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