Camellias in Sydney

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Camellia japonica Guilio Nuccio grew in my childhood garden

One of the strongest memories I have of the garden of my childhood is of the many Camellia japonica shrubs that grew there. There were around 50 of them, all planted by my mother over the five decades she spent living at the house. In wintertime, the garden was decorated by a profusion of their sumptuous blooms, and they were often picked and floated in bowls of water in the garden or inside the house, or given away by the basketful to visiting friends. By the time I had begun to be interested in gardening, they were already mature shrubs - trees almost, giving the garden such a feeling of shelter and permanence. I couldn't believe a flower so glamorous and exotic could bloom in the dead of winter!

Camellia japonica Fire Dance at the nursery

I had no idea then that Sydney has one of the best climates in the world for growing these beautiful shrubs. When I moved to my present garden, I began planting some for myself, and with their lush, glossy leaves and dramatic flowers, they fit in well with my semitropical-style garden. I recently spent a morning with some gardening friends at a long-established Sydney camellia nursery, Camellias R Us at Glenorie, in north-west Sydney, run by Bill and Joanne Parker. It was a joy to walk amongst the multitude of different Camellia specimens in bloom at the nursery, including many of the one that once grew in my mother's garden; and to learn from Bill what has been happening in the world of camellias.

I didn't know, for example, that no new Camellia specimens can be imported into Australia any more. This is to protect our plants from horrible pests and diseases, such as camellia petal blight, which would ruin their flowers. Attention has turned to trying to preserve as many as possible of the old Camellia cultivars that have been grown in Sydney over the past two centuries.

Camellia Anemoniflora growing at Camden Park NSW

Sydney has a long and important history in growing camellias. Charles Fraser, the first superintendent at Sydney's Royal Botanic Garden, imported four camellias in 1823 and grew them there. The next camellias to reach Australia were in a shipment in 1826 for the garden of Elizabeth Bay House, owned by Colonial Secretary Alexander Macleay. Another consignment arrived in 1831, destined for William Macarthur at Camden Park, including the cultivar 'Anemoniflora' (once known as the 'waratah camellia' because of its resemblance to that native flower), which still grows there today, believed to be the oldest camellia plant in Australia. Macarthur bred a number of seedlings from his importations, which were grown throughout the colony: 'Aspasia Macarthur', with large cream flowers striped and blotched with pink was possibly the first Australian-bred cultivar. Nurserymen William Guilfoyle and TW Shepherd collected and bred camellias for sale; the plants were immensely popular amongst Sydney gardeners in the second half of the 19th century. By the end of that century, however, the camellia boom had burst here and elsewhere in the world, and the number of different camellias available in Sydney nurseries dropped dramatically. Around the middle of the 20th century (just when Mum was planting out her garden!), the fortunes of camellias were revived, with the importation of different species and cultivars, and much hybridisation being carried out.

Camellia Eryldene Excelsis growing at Eryldene, Gordon NSW

Much of the resurgence of interest in camellias in Sydney can be attributed to the work of Professor EG Waterhouse, who raised and named a large number of seedlings at his historic home Eryldene. The garden there has a magnificent collection of historic camellias. He established Camellia Grove Nursery in St Ives, wrote several books on camellias, co-founded a society dedicated to them, and championed these plants for the Sydney climate.

Camellia sasanqua Hiryu, growing at the nursery

Sadly, as Sydney undergoes its current massive housing development, many mature, iconic camellias are being destroyed in the process. Bill Parker is involved with a group known as Camellia Ark Australia, set up in 2016 save Australia's endangered camellias. The group seeks out, identifies and propagates rare camellias, and also helps local communities to conserve heritage camellias in their areas. Bill recently helped save six mature specimens of Camellia sasanqua 'Hiryu' from a hedge planted by Professor Waterhouse at Gordon railway station 60 years ago; and he also help save 90 heritage camellias from the Camellia Grove Nursery site, which was being redeveloped into an aged care facility.

Camellia sinensis growing at the nursery

Increasing housing development in Sydney has also meant smaller gardens. During our visit to Bill's nursery, we learned how camellias can be included in more compact spaces: such as espaliering of camellias on a fence or on a trellis in a narrow passageway. Camellias can also grow in pots in courtyards or on balconies; it's also possible to train potted specimens as an attractive standard. Sasanqua camellias can grow in sun or part-shade; the japonica type needs a filtered shade position, with protection from the morning sun in winter, which can ruin the flowers. For hedges in small gardens, various small-leaved sasanqua camellia cultivars are ideal, and can be clipped to shape. There is a such sity of flower colours and shapes amongst camellias, and even some scented varieties. Bill now also promotes the species camellia that tea is derived from: Camellia sinensis, with instructions for how to pick and process the leaves at home, to create white, green or black tea!

My friends and I had a really enjoyable morning at the nursery. It is open to the public from Monday to Thursday 7 am till 4 pm, and Fridays 7 am till 1 pm. It is an excellent outing for a garden club - contact Bill for more information. And you can see him on ABC TV's Gardening Australia this coming Friday 29 June 2018!

There are lots of opportunities to see camellias in Sydney in July. There is a camellia gala day at Lisgar Gardens in Hornsby NSW coming up on Sunday 1 July 2018 from 11:00 am to 3:30 pm- see this link for details: There is also the annual NSW Camellia Research Society Show at Ravenswood School, Henry Street, Gordon NSW on 14 and 15 July (Saturday 1.30 to 4.30 pm and Sunday 10 am to 4 pm). That same weekend, the historic home of Professor Waterhouse, Eryldene, at 17 McIntosh Street, Gordon NSW will be open - see here for more information. For those who live in southern Sydney, the lovely EG Waterhouse National Camellia Garden at Caringbah is well worth visiting.

Plant of the week
Flowers in May, June, July, August.
See everything that's out this month »

My previous blogs at this time of year:
2009
21 Jun
2010
20 Jun
2014
22 Jun
2015
21 Jun
2016
26 Jun
2017
25 Jun

Reader Comments

  • By Gaynor - 5044 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 25 June 2018

    I agree that camellias are almost the perfect plant. I love their shiny green leaves in summer as well. They don"t grow so well here in Adelaide because the climate is too hot and dry and the soils too alkaline, but it is possible to see beautiful examples of the plant in bigger, older gardens especially. Great you are able to see some camellias in your region. Deirdre

  • By Evelyn - 2117 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 25 June 2018

    The former owner of my garden planted several camellias in the garden which are lovely in winter. Rather under attack from possums at present but I am hoping some flowers survive. One of my plants has the fish tailed leaves which gives it a bit of a different look with its pale pink flowers. I hope those possums will leave them alone soon! Those fish-tail leaves sound interesting! Deirdre

  • By Kerrie - 2104 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 25 June 2018

    I"ve had 3 horticulturists & landscapers gush over my "wild look" plant collectors garden & i finally asked the last one why. He said all people want these days is BBQ, a fire pit,lots of hardscape paving & just a few plant & forget plants or vegies. We discussed how sad that is & the ever diminishing Aussie backyard but even here on Sydney"s northern beaches where the plots are big people these days don"t seem to be interested in old fashioned gardening or plants. Sad indeed. Yes it is sad but luckily there are still lots of us keen gardeners left! Deirdre

  • By Peta - 2758 (Zone:9 - Cool Temperate) Monday, 25 June 2018

    I really enjoyed this blog Deirdre. We are fortunate to have many mature, tree sized Camellias here in our garden in Bilpin. Several are over 60 years old and include historic cultivars as well as true species. They are tough plants and along with the Rhododendrons, seem to cope with long dry periods. You"ve inspired me to revisit Eryldene. I remember seeing Prof. Waterhouse there when he was still alive. Also I must go to Parkers. I"m hoping they have that beautiful "Sawada"s Dream". Having those mature camellias is wonderful. Eryldene is inspiring to visit. Hope you can get Sawada"s Dream - it is so lovely. Deirdre

  • By Janet - 2322 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 25 June 2018

    oh how I love Camellias! I have trained several of mine into single trunk trees with beds of azaleas underneath it is a sight to behold in autumn & winter and when not in flower still look stunning. Thanks for your blogs Deirdre they are so informative. Thanks, Janet. I like to train mine to a single trunk too - they look so elegant like that and it creates room beneath for other plants like your azaleas. Deirdre

  • By Pam - 2159 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 25 June 2018

    I love camellias too. The show at Ravenswood on 14-15th July will be opened on Saturday at 2.30pm by Andrew Waterhouse, grandson of Professor Waterhouse. Andrew owns a property with camellias at Kurrajong Heights.One can visit both Eryldene and Ravenswood at Gordon over the weekend. www.camelliasnsw.org Thanks, Pam. That is great that Andrew Waterhouse will open the show, and it is good that the show and Eryldene can be visited on the same weekend, and both are in Gordon! Deirdre

  • By Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 25 June 2018

    Where I grew up, in Bondi North, we did not have camellias growing, so when I came to live in my current property, I was given "The Csar" by my god-father, and, not knowing much about camellias, planted it where it received full sun. Later I learned this variety will take these conditions, and it rewards every year, with fantastic flowers.At the camellia nursery two weeks ago, I bought a Japanese-bred variety called "Tama-No-Ura, with red inner petals and a white skirt - an unusual variety. That is a good point about the darker-coloured camellias being sun tolerant. I loved that one you bought when we were at the nursery that day. Hope it does well. Deirdre

  • By Helen - 7256 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 25 June 2018

    Camellias are also a favourite of mine & thrive here especially japonicas. Most camelias in my garden are over 40 yrs & very large. They shed their petals after flowering leaving pretty carpets of pink or white petals under each one. One creamy white variety is flowering now and will continue through until mid September. My fav is a deep pink variety " Donation". I also have a few sasanquas, but they need more shelter from cold winds & are a bit slower to come into flower. It"s good to know that they do well in your climate. "Donation" is a lovely one. Deirdre

  • By Bob - 2570 (Zone:9 - Cool Temperate) Monday, 25 June 2018

    Camellias are still growing strong at Camden Park House were I volunteer in the gardens. A new bed of all camellias were planted last year and despite the hot dry conditions they experienced are seating to look good ready for our open weekend in September. Work is underway to plant Camelliars in the old lower gardens where William MacArthur first established his gardens in 1820. Thanks, Bob. I really enjoyed my visit there a few years ago. Deirdre

  • By Anton - Hong Kong Wednesday, 27 June 2018

    Love them too, I particularly like the singles. Hiryu is a beaut! They grow well here especially the big bloomed single white which is a native. Trees get covered in big bright white flirty flowers. Seedlings pop up here and there brought by the birds I think. But my selections of C. azalea are my favourite. Exactly like incredibly bright scarlet magnolias. Tall sturdy narrow upright flute glass shaped blooms and dark blue green leathery waxy foliage with a grape like bloom. Lovely things! Good to know that they grow where you are. Deirdre

  • By Anton - Hong Kong Wednesday, 27 June 2018

    Ps - think I killed my Salvia by pruning it. B & Blue guaranitica. They grow and flower so well but fast here it"s all in finished in a month or two. I decided to cut one of them back to a stub see if I get a repeat of the big flowers. But it"s just sitting there, a thick stub, like a tree trunk. It"s not black but its not shooting either. Any suggestions? Should I feed it nitrogen? I did get a lovely one in Queensland, Amistad which has taken off. Now Im after the Wishes series..... Next time! I have never heard of Salvia "Black and Blue" dying -- usually it is the opposite: it takes over! What season is it there? It could be just dormant? Do hope it shoots soon. Deirdre

  • By Anton - Hong Kong Friday, 29 June 2018

    Thanks Deirdre. It"s the height of our summer. The Northern Hemisphere. So lots of rain, humidity and heat. Today is around 34%C and 80% humidity. S. guaranitica goes dormant in the cool dry season here. I"m a big fan of "black and blue" just love that Moroccan blue. The other one hasn"t taken over. Seems to remain happily in it"s place and satisfyingly long lived. I"ve never pruned it like this, though. This one is a two year old cutting. Maybe no runners or tubers yet? Just the thick trunk?

  • By Anton - Hong Kong Friday, 29 June 2018

    We have at least a dozen wild camellia species, which is surprising for Hong Kong. I had never heard of Camellia azalea before so I looked it up -- what a beautiful flower! Deirdre

  • By Maree - 2074 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Friday, 29 June 2018

    Deidre Reading Peta"s post, Parkers are no longer in Turramurra. The nursery is now owned by Honeysuckle and when I was last there, there were not very many camellias in the nursery. Thanks, Maree; I think she was referring to the Camellias R Us Nursery I went to at Glenorie, which I think was once known as Parkers (the name of the owners). I know it is a bit confusing! Deirdre

  • By Maree - 2074 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Friday, 29 June 2018

    Thanks Deidre. That makes perfect sense now. I always think of Parkers as Parkers of Turramurra and they had lots of camellias. Could you let me know where Camellias R Us are at Glenorie please. Thanks, Maree. Follow the purple link to the nursery website in paragraph 2 of the blog with all the details of where they are, plus lists of their camellias. Thanks for your interest. Deirdre

  • By Adelina - 2477 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Thursday, 12 July 2018

    I was told that Camelias would not grow in the northern rivers district area of NSW so when I left Sydney I didn"t bring any of my beauties with me. I had bought many of them at Eryldene. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that they grow beautifully here as well, though you have to be a bit more careful where you plant them specially those real shade lovers. How lovely that they grow so well for you there, Adelina! Deirdre

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