The autumn-flowering Camellia sasanqua grow very well in our Sydney climate, offering evergreen structure and background greenery, as well as beautiful blooms. Once established, they are tough and forgiving. They are particularly useful for creating formal structural elements in the garden, which can provide a distinct contrast to the blowzy, exuberant form of many warm-climate plants. They are very versatile and can be used for high or low hedges or screens; espaliered on walls or over arches; trained as standards; grown in containers; or employed as dense feature shrubs at garden entrances or in mixed shrubberies. They can be pruned to a single trunk and their lower branches removed to give the effect of a small tree. Heights range from 1-4m, even to 5-6 m or more with age in some instances. There are even groundcover versions.
They bloom over a long period in autumn, with a profusion of large, silky, rounded flowers, with single, semi-double, informal double (peony form), double centre (anemone form) or formal double blooms in many shades of pinks, whites or reds; some have bicoloured petals. The flowers often have a slightly earthy scent which befits the season, and the petals usually fall to the ground like a pretty carpet around the base of the shrub. The flowers are less stiff and formal than those of their cousins the japonica camellias. Their leaves are also smaller and the overall habit of the shrub is more open and airy. The slanting angle of the sun in autumn sidelights and polishes the leaves, making the whole shrub sparkle on sunny days. Birds such as lorikeets love to visit the flowers for their nectar, creating a comical display as they quarrel and tumble in the branches.
These plants are very adaptable, and will grow in full sun or part shade. In full shade, their growth will become rather straggly and they will not flower quite as well. They enjoy well-drained, humus-rich, slightly acidic soil (pH 5.5-6) which is moist in summer; a waterlogged soil is very unsuitable. They need to be watered about twice a week in dry spells in their early years; later, they will become resilient enough to survive with little extra watering. However, flowering is more prolific in years with plenty of rain. They appreciate a light mulch, preferably of cow manure, to protect their shallow root-system in spring and summer, as well as to help retain moisture in the soil and to provide a trickle of nutrients through the growing season. Camellia sasanqua need to be grown away from areas where greedy tree roots will invade their soil. They can be grown in seaside gardens if the soil conditions are right. There are few pests of these plants. Scale can be controlled with white oil and an invasion of mites may indicate that the plant is positioned in too much shade. Pruning to let more light into the shrub may help in this case. Eco Oil may be help to protect new foliage from mites, but once the damage is done (appearing as a pale brown centre to the leaves, looking a bit like sunburn) the leaves are marked permanently.
Feeding with a soluble fertiliser every two months from September to May has a very beneficial effect on their growth; or a slow-release granular food can be used in spring instead. Many gardeners believe that feeding with a specialist camellia food has a very beneficial effect on their growth. A light pruning after flowering is usually recommended for denser growth but is not compulsory, except for formal hedges which should be pruned in spring. Camellia sasanqua may seem slow to take off, but eventually many can reach the proportions of a small tree, unless otherwise pruned. Very tall old specimens can be cut back hard, and will rejuvenate within two years. Don't prune after December, or you will be removing the flower buds for next autumn. If you want to move an established one, this is best done in June or July. To propagate a favourite cultivar, try a semi-hardwood cutting in December or January, keeping it moist and shaded until it strikes.
The growth habit of the sasanqua camellias varies markedly, and different cultivars suit different applications in the garden. The following categories give some suggestions. Some cultivars of camellia species that are closely related to the sasanquas are also included here.
For specimen plants, eventual trees, tall hedges or informal screens, a cultivar with strong, upright bushy growth is the appropriate choice. Examples include:
For low hedges or tub specimens, it's best to choose a compact growing cultivar:
For espaliering a camellia flat against a wall or over a metal arch, or developing a weeping standard camellia, there are cultivars with spreading pendulous growth or strong side-branching laterals. These should be pinned or tied to the wall and forward-facing laterals cut off close to the main trunk. An espaliered row of sasanqua camellias can be a good solution against a wall or fence down a narrow passageway or driveway. Suitable ones include:
Narrow-growing cultivars that suit compact ares, include the Paradise Slimline range, growing 2-3 m tall and 1-2 m wide: 'With Love' has frilly pink flowers, 'Avalanche' is a white version, and 'Irresistible' has bi-coloured pink and white blooms.
Some sasanqua camellias of a weeping habit are also available. 'Red Willow' has reddish-pink semi-double flowers on very pendulous branches, and suits a container or a position at the edge of a wall. 'Marge Miller' is a groundcover camellia with mid-pink semi-double flowers, which could also be used to cascade over a wall or bank, or trained as a weeping standard. 'Classique' is also a groundcover, with pretty pink single flowers. Clipped standards can be formed from almost any sasanqua cultivar, but 'Star above Star', 'Setsugekka' and 'Bonanza' are said to be particularly suitable.
Ideal companion plants are the many types of shrubby or groundcover Plectranthus, which provide a contrast of form with their feathery flowers of pink, purple or white. Cane and shrub Begonia also mingle happily with the camellias, and the beautiful Japanese windflowers will wander between them and send up their white or pink flowers in early autumn. Groundcovers such as mondo grass, Liriope, rhizomatous Begonia and Tradescantia are also possibilities. Pretty, low-growing Ruellia makoyana with its silver-striped leaves and cerise-purple flowers in autumn is another suggestion.
The best time to choose and plant a sasanqua is when they are in bloom - so check them out at a nursery in autumn!