Camellias have been cultivated in Asia for thousands of years and are one of our best-known winter-flowering shrubs.
These evergreen plants range from dwarf shrubs to small trees and are dependable, easy-care winter stalwarts.
Winter is a great time to view camellias. We visited Auckland's Botanic Gardens in Manurewa last weekend to check out the camellia walk, and were impressed with the range of camellias on show. They have a fantastic collection of 62 species with intriguing variations in form and habit. There are dainty, weeping small-leafed shrubs such as Camellia minutiflora with delicate shell-pink flowers, to those with large, poached egg-shaped flowers such as Camellia gauchowensis or C. trichocarpa.
Of course, they had to have the best known of all species camellias, Camellia sinensis - the beverage of which is sipped the world over.
The camellia garden commenced in 1987 with the expert help of Neville Haydon, a celebrated camellia breeder and researcher, and features 487 cultivars.
The Camellia japonica and reticulata cultivars are selected for their performance in Auckland conditions. Some are a little on the blousie side, with floppy pink petals like an organza ball dress. Several dark-red cultivars caught my eye, reminiscent of 1920s Chinoiserie. I loved the dense, anemone form of japonica "Little Bit Red" and "Takanini" (the latter bred by Haydon) and the unusual white flowers of Japanese-bred "Kikorako". Unusual colours also leaped out, such as the grey-pink "Grape Soda", white-centred "Tinsie" and bi-coloured "Volunteer". Volunteer was a chance seedling from New Zealand camellia-breeders the Jury family.
Camellia sasanqua cultivars, which have more compact habit and foliage, are dotted around the gardens in sunnier locations and form part of the shrub trial garden. Landscapers love sasanquas as they make excellent hedges and, if trimmed regularly, show less leg than their japonica counterparts. Some will grow into small trees, but will respond to a hard prune if needed.
Camellias offer vibrant colour in an otherwise dull winter palette. From true whites to shell pinks, scarlet to the deepest burgundy, the colour range and flower forms offer huge design scope. Their foliage is a dark, leathery gloss and serves well as hedging or a dense screen to fill an awkward shady corner in the garden.
Camellia careCamellias prefer slightly acidic soil of pH 6 to 6.5. They are woodland plants and prefer to be grown in a sheltered, semi-shade location in moisture-retentive soil, rich in organic matter. They are light feeders and surface-rooters.
This plant does well with little fuss (if it ain't broke, don't fix it). Application of fertiliser at the wrong time during the camellia's dormant phase may kill it. This is when they are developing buds and blooming. It is best to feed them at the end of winter or in spring.
Apply sheep pellets or small amounts of diluted fish fertiliser, blood and bone or seaweed solution, then lightly mulch, avoiding the trunk. Prune to remove dead, weak and overlapping branches after flowering. Avoid letting camellias dry out too much in late summer when they are forming buds.
I worked for many years in a garden that had a large Camellia sasanqua "Setsugekka" hedge. The only pest issue we had was dealing with thrips and catching them before they did too much damage. Regularly check the undersides of leaves for tiny black insects and their tell-tale brown excrement.
Thrips scrape away the green chlorophyll of leaves and in time will turn them silver. I once returned from a break away and was horrified to discover half the hedge had turned a nasty shade of silver. Once the damage was done, there was no solution other than to prune and wait for new foliage. If you have thrips, regularly spray the undersides of leaves with soapy organic potassium fatty acid spray, mixed with neem for added oomph.
Camellias will tolerate transplanting in winter. We moved a white japonica from our garden a few years ago. The crisp white "formal double" flowers tended to get brown when rained on, and the thick buds would rot before they got a chance to open, so we moved it to a shady spot on the south side of a fence in my grandmother's garden, which suited it well.
Types of camellia
There are more than 200 camellia species, originating from Northern India and the Himalayas to Indonesia. The three main types we see in gardens are Camellia japonica (more than 3000 cultivars), C.reticulata and C.sasanqua (400 and 300 cultivars respectively).
Camellia sasanqua start flowering the earliest, in autumn. They have smallish flowers, usually single and abundant. They originate from China and Japan. Their finer foliage can be used to great effect in garden design.
Camellia reticulata are native to southwest China's Yunnan Province. They have voluminous flowers and make a statement in the garden, and are taller growing. They start blooming in May.
Camellia japonica originate from Japan, China and Korea. They come in a range of flower forms, and have petals as single, semi-double, formal, anemone, peony and rose. They come in a wide range of colours and bloom through winter.
Places to see camellias:
Eden Garden is a perfect spot to visit in winter and early spring for its camellia, azalea and rhododendron collection.
Auckland Botanic Gardens is celebrating camellias until Sunday July 28 by hosting high tea with a camellia walk and talk.
The National Camellia Show is on Saturday, August 10 at Alexandra Park, Epsom.