Visiting a lovely garden last week that had some beautiful mature Camellia shrubs reminded me once again how valuable these plants are for providing evergreen structure, height, mass and a sense of permanence - along with their gorgeous flowers in the cooler months. Sydney has the perfect climate for these plants. One of my greatest gardening regrets is that I didn't plant more Camellia when I began my garden 29 years ago. They would be robust shrubs by now, full of blooms and having a real presence in the garden. 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 have managed to shoehorn a couple in! 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.
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. More recently, I added the white formal double 'Nuccio's Gem'.
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. In the garden I visited last week, a camellia had been trained as a 'cloud tree' - it was quite spectacular! 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 that 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. I am hoping my 'Moshio' hedge might be more floriferous next year, since the radical thinning of the nearby Liquidambar tree recently!
Camellia japonica 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.
Fabulous summer foliage
03 Dec 23
Summer colour does not have to be all about flowers.
November pruning and snipping
26 Nov 23
We can do a lot of trimming this month!
The reappearance of Lizzie
19 Nov 23
Busy Lizzies seem to be back!
12 Nov 23
There are some interesting and unusual bulbs that flower this month.
Thank you, Brazil!
05 Nov 23
Many of the plants that thrive in Sydney come from Brazil.