One of my greatest gardening regrets is that I didn't plant more Camellia when I began my garden 20 years ago. Sydney has the perfect climate for these plants. They would be robust shrubs by now, full of blooms and having a real presence in the garden, providing vital evergreen structure. I did plant some, but mainly Camellia sasanqua, which give lots of welcome colour in autumn; however, I would like to have more Camellia japonica varieties for their lovely winter flowers. Now that the garden is established, it is harder to find a spot to put one in but I am determined to find a place! One of the enduring memories from my childhood is that of bowls of Camellia japonica flowers decorating our house in winter, from the many types grown by my mother in her garden.
A morning spent at a nursery specialising in Camellia plants last week left my head reeling at the number of desirable cultivars that are available. Camellia japonica have a range of floral forms: 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). I always find myself drawn to the singles, semi-doubles and the formal doubles. To me they have a purity of shape that the others lack. I have a lovely white semi-double called 'Lovelight' and a hedge of glowing red semi-double 'Moshio' (syn. 'Flame') growing in my garden.
Camellia japonica can be grown as a shrub or trained to the shape of a small tree by removing the lower branching stems early in its life. 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.
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.
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 a few weeks before the move by one-third and keep the plant moist. Applications of Seasol will help the plant cope with the move.
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. I have also successfully propagated some Camellia that were given to me in a posy from a friend's garden last July.
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