Larger shrubby stars of our winter gardens are the Camellia japonica, which are smothered in blooms at the moment. Sydney has one of the most favourable climates in the world for growing them and was home to the late Professor EG Waterhouse, a world-renowned Camellia expert, who in the 1950s was instrumental in reviving enthusiasm for these plants, which had waned after a period of intense popularity in the 19th century. The first person to grow Camellia specimens in Australia is said to be John Macarthur at Camden Park, who imported them from England in 1831 and then propagated and distributed them here.
The majestic flowers have forms varying from elegant singles with one row of petals, semi-doubles with a prominent central cluster of stamens, through to anemones forms, ruffled doubles and informal doubles, and exquisitely layered formal doubles. A shallow bowl of floating camellia blooms is almost de rigueur for indoor decoration in winter; a similar outdoor effect can be achieved in a birdbath.
Many of these handsome evergreen shrubs will eventually reach 5-7m in height if left unpruned, although some are naturally more compact. They 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, it 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 camellias can be rejuvenated to produce a similar effect. A small group of such 'trees' can provide a canopy for other shade-loving plants. Compact cultivars can be grown in tubs, using a potting mix suitable for acid-loving plants.
On the whole, camellias, especially those with pale-coloured flowers, need to be grown in partial or dappled shade. In particular, they should not have any sun falling on the flowers before midday in particular, as this will damage the blooms. Complete shade through the year is not ideal, however; they do need some filtered sun in summer to set the flower buds but should be protected from hot afternoon sun. Some cultivars have brilliant red bold flowers which blaze on winter days, the petals often enhanced by bunches of yellow stamens, and some of these can stand sunnier positions than the paler-flowered types, including the vigorous 'Grand Slam' (semi-double to anemone form with glowing deep red blooms), and 'Moshio' (syn. 'Flame', semi-double bright red flower).
These red camellias combine well with other hot-coloured flowers and are powerful against a foliage backdrop of green, red's complementary colour. Red flowers can also be echoed by a context of bright red evergreen leaves, such as the brilliant red to purple winter foliage of the oriental scared bamboo (Nandina domestica, ht 1.8m) or its dwarf form ('Nana', ht 45cm). Golden foliage such as that of golden Duranta can continue the vibrant colour scheme, echoing the bright yellow stamens of the camellias. The spiked scarlet flowers of winter-blooming Salvia gesneriiflora grown nearby can bring a contrast to the rounded camellia blooms.
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), 'Lovelight' (large semi-double, pure white flower with rounded petals) and 'Nuccio's Gem' (large white formal double bloom). The white cultivars look attractive with pristine white snowflakes (Leucojum vernum) or hellebores (Helleborus x hybridus ) growing at their feet. An unusually coloured Camellia japonica 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 pink cultivars have more vibrant 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). The last two cultivars are suited to being grown in tubs. Some of the flower spikes of the big pink winter-flowering salvias - such as Salvia involucrata x karwinskii or Salvia wagneriana - can provide a contrast in form to these camellias rounded blooms. Check my plant reference for detailed cultivation notes for Camellia japonica.
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