Camellias may love Taranaki's rich volcanic soils and frequent rainfall, but the pretty flowering plants are no longer as popular as they used to be, says Tony Barnes.

"For many, camellias have become common and lost their sparkle. That is a great pity, as they are one of the easiest to grow and most colourful of the autumn and winter flowering shrubs and the recent inter-specific hybrids are much more suited to the smaller, modern garden."

Tony says the arrival of flower petal blight into New Zealand 20 years ago was a blow, and this, coupled with the recent trends of formal hedges, iceberg roses, low maintenance grasses and succulents, means new home and garden owners don't often consider the flowering plants.

The public will have the opportunity, however, to change their minds during the New Zealand Camellia Society National Show on August 18, where more than 1000 camellias will be on display at New Plymouth's Quality Hotel.

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Tony Barnes, who owns Ngamamaku Garden near Oakura, has worked as a nursery man all his life and was hooked on camellias after working for Duncan and Davies, who used to export them.

He has been a member of the New Zealand Camellia Society for more than 35 years and has become an expert on the flowering plants. Tony says the society was formed in the 1950s with the aim of making camellias one of the first five types of plant people bought and they soon gained popularity.

He says cameillas can live a long time, with some of New Zealand's more historic trees still thriving after being planted in 1840s at the Treaty House in Waitangi. Tony says another reason to plant camellias is as a source of nectar and protein food for both native birds and bees in the colder months, when food from other flowers is scarce.

"It's essential that we care for the environment, and plant species that will encourage and sustain wildlife. I have about 150 varieties of camellia in my garden, and tui, bellbirds and waxeyes feed regularly at well over 100 of them.

"The most popular are those with open flowers with lots of stamens. These provide easy access to both birds and bees, and produce lots of nectar and pollen protein."

Tony says the autumn flowering sasanqua variety of camellia are a beautiful addition to any garden, emerging in the shorter cooler days when summer flowers have finished. Sasanqua camellias are slightly smaller leafed, and have a more open, airy growth habit than the japonica species, but still benefit from thinning.

"They are wonderful for hedges, and can easily be grown in containers, or espaliered against a wall or fence. Their blooms, in shades of white, pink, red, crimson and combinations thereof, shatter as they fall, so do not leave blobs of brown soggy rotting vegetation on your paths."

Tony says some of the best varieties include Setsugeka, Crimson King, Mine-no-Yuki, Elfin Rose, Bonanza, Yuletide and Paradise Helen. Next in the flowering sequence are the smaller flowered species and their hybrids.

"These are under-storey plants in their natural habitat in south west China. They may not be quite as robust as the more common japonica hybrids, requiring a more sheltered position, better drainage, and preferably some light shade during the heat of afternoon summer sun, but they are also much more graceful and elegant in their growth habit."
Tony says these are well suited to smaller gardens.

"What they lack in colour — at present the range is only white through to deep pink — they make up for in sheer flower power, blooming in the leaf axils all along the slender branches for months on end."

Those with the species lutchuensis in their parentage are fragrant, one of the best being the single, deep pink Koto-no-Kaori. Tony says others to look out for are Sweet Jane, Transpink, Alpen Glow, Sugar-n-Spice, Sweet Emily Kate and Quintessence.

People may be more familiar with the more traditional camellias which include hardy japonicas, reticulatas and their hybrids. Tony says these are easy to grow and tough as nails.

"Plant them singly or as hedges for shelter or grow them in pots. You will be amazed at the size and beauty of the reticulata blooms, or the diversity of form and colour of the japonicas and hybrids.

"Appreciate the deep green foliage, attractive all year round, and the relatively quick growth. It also pays to think about how resilient they are. Many plants around the country have survived for 100 years or more, happily growing in an open paddock, lower branches grazed by cattle, and still smothering themselves with bloom every winter and spring.

"Plants that have outgrown their allotted space can be trimmed as desired, even cut down to stumps, and will soon refurnish themselves and continue blooming. No garden can have too many camellias!"

The National Camellia Show is being held at the Quality Hotel Plymouth International Ballroom on August 18. The public are invited to attend between 12.30pm and 5pm. Entry is a gold coin donation.