"Consider camellias"

This is the time of year to enjoy Camellia flowers.
Sunday, 04 June 2023     

Camellia japonica Lovelight in my garden

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.

 Reader Comments

1/13  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 23 June 2014

Wonderful plants in the camellia nursery at Glenorie. Last year my Japonica camellia, at least 35 year"s old, suffered from a mite on the leaves - the first time it had ever had anything wrong with it. I cut the plant down to about 50cm from a height of 4m and, although it took 3 months for re-growth, it is back to its former glory and flowering well. Applications of pest oil have kept the plant clean from pests. Thanks for that tip, Margaret. Deirdre

2/13  Ruth - 4034 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 23 June 2014

As always your notes are so encouraging,thank you Deirdre. I have a hedge of 27 white sasanquas "Setsugekka" and three Japonicas "Drama Girl" my "voluptuous ladies". Last year I found a camellia plant called "High Fragrance" and planted two. Yesterday the first bud opened into a beautiful pink fragrant blossom, the perfume is delightful, I am so excited to know that there is a fragrant camellia. Thanks, Ruth. I did see that fragrant one last week at the nursery and it smelled wonderful. Deirdre

3/13  Robin - 2121 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 23 June 2014

I also saw 'High Fragrance' at the nursery, Deirdre and now I wish I had bought one, after reading Ruth's comment. Apparently other sasanquas have a slight fragrance. Thanks for the pruning and fertilising advice. Another informative blog. Thanks, Robin. Deirdre

4/13  Richard - 2112 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The Japomicas are hard to beat in our climate, but there are many other species & hybrids available. The Williamsiis are beautiful with their luminous colour (can be susceptible to dieback), & C.pitardii hybrid Nicky Crisp is hard to beat. The large flowering reticulatas are show stoppers. There are a few fragrant camellias apart from the sasanquas, including Scentuous,Sweet Emily Kate, Koto No Kaori, Minato No Akebono, C. lutchuensis, and C. rosiflora which has a rose scent. Thanks for all those suggestions, Richard. We are certainly spoilt for choice in Sydney! Deirdre

5/13  Leanda - 2156 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Sunday, 29 June 2014

I couldn"t agree more, Deidre. I planted a Sasanqua Hiryu hedge and a row of Japonicas about 18-20 years ago and they are simply fantastic. The Hiryu hedge was a mass of blooms a month or so ago and the Japonicas are just beginning to show their best. Debutante (Japonica) is right outside our dining room window and will soon be covered in delightful double, pale pink flowers. Not to mention the glossy green foliage year round. I made lots of mistakes back then but this wasn"t one of them :) Sounds great, Leanda. I envy you! Deirdre

6/13  Geoff - 2323 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 05 June 2023

Thanks for the blog, Deirdre. In addition to the many benefits of camellias that you mention, they have interesting wood on their trunks if they have the bottom branches removed, and the honeyeaters love the nectar in the flowers. I agree about the trunks and branches being very attractive - the cloud tree wood was simply beautiful. Deirdre

7/13  Kerrie - 2104 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 05 June 2023

I must admit they weren't on my radar much until I moved to this house. I think they should change the name of our street to Camelia Avenue as every house has multiple camellias out front which makes walking up the street in winter a real delight. I have one in my garden that is a big tree. I love the pink petal carpet underneath it. I also have Volunteer in a pot which is such a beautiful unusual one. Thanks to Richard's comment & useful information. I also love the petals under the sasanquas. This year seems to be a very good one for camellias. Deirdre

8/13  Pamela - 2158 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 05 June 2023

Absolutely agree.I had huge mature specimens in my garden at Gordon and miss them.I planted over 20 when I came to Dural but lost at least half in the drought.I now plant close to a water source as they are slow to establish but Im happy the ones I have now are very healthy. Ive two HUGE Camellias up at the cottage which must be over 40 years old and they are a joy every year.They are great in pots too.I adore their handsome, year round fuss free beauty.A must for every garden, Id love more!! Yes they do seem to need adequate moisture especially in the early years. They really are low maintenance and we are so lucky to live in the perfect climate for them! Deirdre

9/13  Pamela - 2158 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 05 June 2023

My late MIL was a friend of Professor Waterhouse as they lived close by in Gordon. As a member of the Camellia Society her garden was a showpiece of almost every variety and colour of Camellia which thrived in her well drained sandstone base acidic soil. After her death we moved into her house and I enjoyed 20 years of these stunning shrubs. I'd pick armfuls for vases when I entertained in the 80s, not truly appreciating how lucky I was!!! What I'd give to have them now in my garden. How wonderful that all sounds! My mother's garden had a large number of camellias too so they were familiar to me from an early age. Deirdre

10/13  Pam - 2159 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 05 June 2023

The NSW Camellia Research Society is holding a Camellia Show at Ravenswood School, Henry St, Gordon, Saturday afternoon 8th July and Sunday 9th July. More than a thousand beautiful camellias on display. Camellia plants for sale and Ikebana display. https;/camelliansw.org Thanks so much; I have added this info to the end of the blog. Deirdre

11/13  Jude - 4560 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 05 June 2023

Thanks Deirdre, and fellow readers, for your advice and inspirational comments. I too have several large camellias that have over the years become more and more shaded by surrounding trees and as a result are blooming less well. I'm now considering asking our lovely arborist what he thinks about cutting back branches of surrounding trees so the camellias can flourish again. I miss their Autumn and Winter flowering. Camellias are, btw, flourishing street shrubs here in Montville. Great to know they do well in that area of Qld. I do think there can be too much shade for them, especially when they are setting their buds. I have high hopes for mine next year after the massacre of the liquidambar! Deirdre

12/13  Sue - 2074 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 05 June 2023

When the garden starts to go to sleep then then we have the camellias to brighten it up with their lovely flowers. Have quite a few in my garden but my favourites are a Japonica Magnoliaeflora along with a Sasanqua Cinnamon Cindy with its lovely perfume. Once established they do very well having survived in my garden during drought and excessive rain. Very worthwhile plants and worth consideration. Thanks, Sue; your specimens looked so lovely when I visited! Deirdre

13/13  Bren - 2540 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 05 June 2023

My Chinese camellia (C. sinensis), ie the tea plant, is doing moderately well in my garden. It has very small unassuming flowers: perhaps a reminder of what other camellia flowers used to be like before hybridisers got to work on them. Yes, interesting to grow the species. Deirdre

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