The start of a new gardening year – Magnolia campbellii

The very first blooms on the M.campbellii in our garden

i in The very first blooms on the M.campbellii in our garden

The start of a new magnolia flowering season has come to mark the start of a new gardening year for us. No matter that this occurs in July, in the depths of winter. It coincides with the earliest of the japonica camellias, the start of snowdrop season and the blooming of Narcissus bulbocodium citrinus, but it is the heady sight of the first big pink blooms on Magnolia campbellii in our park that signals to us that spring is just around the corner.

In the most urban of settings in central new Plymouth

I lookn the most urban of settings in central new Plymouth

Before our plant of M. campbellii opens, we notice the row of 4 or 5 plants breaking bud on Powderham St by the Huatoki Stream in New Plymouth. These open in early to mid June, even before all the leaves have dropped but are at their peak right now. Being in the city, surrounded by concrete and tarseal, the temperatures are warmer than our country garden. We still have only the very first few flowers open.

I was interested to discover that the pink form of campbellii which is all around our district is unusual. In the wild, white forms are apparently far more common. The species has a wide distribution from eastern Nepal through the northwestern areas of Sikkim and Assam in India, southwestern China and as far down as the north of Burma. We saw it earlier this year on Mount Baotai in China but couldn’t tell whether the plant was naturally occurring there or had been relocated.

The 'Quaker Mason' form of M.campbellii in Taranaki

The ‘Quaker Mason’ form of M.campbellii in Taranaki

The pink form we have in Taranaki is commonly referred to as the ‘Quaker Mason’* form and originates from around Darjeeling. As early as 1915, Duncan and Davies Nursery were listing this plant despite huge difficulties in propagating it – it had to be done by layering and it was not easy to do that successfully, either. Our own specimen was one of the first trees planted here by Felix Jury and will date back to the start of the 1950s.

Tupare's white form of M.campbellii this morning

Tupare’s white form of M.campbellii this morning

Tupare (18)Tupare Garden in New Plymouth has one of the oldest white forms of campbellii in our area, though the tree is not a particularly strong grower. It has a different provenance which the late Jack Goodwin relayed to Mark. Alas Mark did not write it down at the time but his recollection is that Russell Matthews, who created Tupare, bought it as a seedling grown plant from a local nurseryman who had imported seed, probably in the 1940s. This may have been James or Francis Morshead. M. campbellii is renowned for taking many years before it sets flower buds and an anecdote from another source relates the huge disappointment Matthews felt when the first blooms opened white, not pink. More a collector of status plants than a plantsman, he was apparently delighted when Victor Davies – of Duncan and Davies Nurseries – assured him that the white form was most unusual and therefore a real treasure. Only history puts this into context – that the white form is unusual for Taranaki because of all our Quaker Mason pink plants, but not at all unusual in the wild.

Quaker Mason by the Anglican church in our local town

Quaker Mason by the Anglican church in our local town

On my way home from New Plymouth this morning, I detoured past the campbellii outside the church of St John the Baptist in my local town of Waitara. Sure enough, it too is in full bloom and looking glorious and is also the Quaker Mason form. Local readers may be gratified to know that one of the very finest specimens of M.campbellii – the Quaker Mason form again – is actually in Stratford, in the garden owned by Hugh Thompson.

These are all Magnolia campbellii var. campbellii. The other form of the same species, known as Magnolia campbellii var. mollicomata, originates from areas further to the east and flowers several weeks later. Our fine specimen of ‘Lanarth’ (or Magnolia campbellii var. mollicomata ‘Lanarth’, to be pedantic) will not flower until halfway into August.

Finally, in case you are wondering for whom this handsome magnolia species was named – plant collector Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (though I don’t think he was knighted at the time he was plant hunting) named it for Archibald or Alfred (some uncertainty on his first name) Campbell, who was an enterprising and powerful representative of the British government in Darjeeling in the north of India from 1839 onwards. He is possibly better known for starting the tea industry in that area, although magnolia enthusiasts around the world continue to use his name. And we celebrate the coming of spring with the magnolia named for him.

* Quaker Mason – or Thomas Mason, to give him his correct name – was an early gardener and plantsman in Wellington. From his arrival as a new settler in 1841, he played a major role in early horticulture in the area through until the end of the century.

Postscript: while we are in the depths of winter with the shortest days and coolest temperatures, we do still get bright, clear light and very blue skies – no photo enhancement involved. This is a Tikorangi winter.

Evergreen azaleas – unsung garden heroes

You can have any colour you like, as long as it is pink, white, red, lilac or coral

You can have any colour you like, as long as it is pink, white, red, lilac or coral

Evergreen azaleas are a bit of an unsung garden hero, really. There can’t be many more obliging, hard working plants. Generally regarded as playing second fiddle to their more aristocratic rhododendron family members, they seem to have followed their slide down towards oblivion in recent times.  Yet they are such a forgiving plant, tolerant of a wide range of conditions from full sun to almost full shade – as long as it is high shade. They also grow well even where there is a lot of root competition. They can be featured in their own right or they can be a backdrop. And if you have enough different types, the flowering extends for much of the year, though the majority peak for us in September to early October. I tracked the blooms and found the latest varieties still with blooms near Christmas and the first ones showing colour in early March this year. That is a pretty impressive record.

046 (3)I am on the ‘Mission of 78 Azaleas’. Some years ago, Mark did a cuttings run from plants here and they had reached the point where they really, truly did need planting out. I found homes for about half of them last spring, but there are still 35 sitting out under the shade cloth, looking reproachfully at me and begging to be given permanent homes this winter.* I shall do it this very month. I swear I will.  From this, you may deduce that azaleas are one of our backbone plants in the garden, threaded through quite large areas.

The $2000 azalea bonsai, spotted in Foshan, China

The $2000 azalea bonsai, spotted in Foshan, China

Not only are azaleas forgiving, they are also remarkably versatile. This is a plant family that is particularly revered in their homelands of China and Japan and I could not help but marvel at the bonsai specimen we recently saw in Foshan with a price tag of RMB9800 – which equates to about $2000 in our money! I admired the clipped azalea hedge kept to about knee height that I saw in the garden at Wairere Nursery near Gordonton a few years ago. Last time I visited Hollard’s Garden near Kaponga, it appeared that every last azalea (and they must have a similar number to us) had been clipped to a tidy, tight mound after flowering. This is a style decision and may appeal to folk who prefer their plants to conform to a prescribed standard.

We have taken a different track with some of our larger plants. While slow growing, some can reach a couple of metres in height after a few decades and they can get a bit formless and scruffy. The usual approach is to cut them off close to the ground and let them ‘come again’. Do this sort of hard pruning in winter or very early spring if you want to go down that track. But we like to feature the shapes of our mature plants and to use them to create a middle layer in our garden – lower than the trees but well above ground level. We shape, lift and thin and this gives us an undulating carpet of colour just above head height.  It takes a bit of work. The plants keep shooting from the base so I try and get around each spring and rub off the new growth and I remove any dead wood at the same time.

007 (11)I like to tell the story of a knowledgeable Japanese garden visitor. He came from Kurume and we have a fair number of very small leafed, small flowered Kurume azaleas. He had no English and we have no Japanese, but he managed to convey to us that our Kurumes were simply astounding in their stature and shape but that we needed to take better care of them. He was pointing to the grey lichen infestation in the canopy of a patch growing in full sun. While it is often recommended that you spray for this – lime sulphur or copper is the usual treatment – it is no mean feat to spray above your head height and we are consciously trying to avoid spraying. So I am on a long term campaign – year three into what may be a five year project. In late spring, I manoeuvre my way around on the ladder to take out maybe 20% of the old growth which is most heavily infested, without losing the canopy effect. They do look better for it, but I am grateful that it is only one area that needs this attention.

Evergreen azaleas are much easier to propagate than rhododendrons and are worth a try after the new growth has hardened in summer. Alternatively you can raise seed, as Mark’s father did here to bulk up the plantings without having to buy them. They won’t grow true from seed, but we like the variation we have as a result and the mass of bloom we get is unsurpassed.

Pink Ice is simply lustrous in bloom, but turns to mush in heavy rain. The smaller flowered varieties are more weather hardy.

Pink Ice is simply lustrous in bloom, but turns to mush in heavy rain. The smaller flowered varieties are more weather hardy.

First published in the July issue of New Zealand Gardener and reproduced here with their agreement. 

* Progress is being made. I am down to 24 plants looking at me reproachfully in the nursery.

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A Mid-Winter’s Day in Tikorangi

IMG_8681Winter can be very pink, here. Or so I have often declared. I hereby move my position. Late winter and early spring can be very pink – all those camellias and magnolias. In late autumn to mid-winter, the dominant colours are more inclined to the oranges and yellows with a smattering of reds.

Having been relatively confined by a combination of wintery, wet weather (Mark says he is consistently tipping 2.5cm or an inch out of the rain gauge each morning) and a bad head cold, I decided I would go and see how many flowers I could find that are in the orange, red, yellow colour range. There is still the last of the autumn colour evident but I figured that I would keep to flowers without adding in coloured foliage. It is probably indicative of our soft climate that I can expect to find a range of different blooms in the depths of winter.

IMG_8669I could of course have added in fruit. The citrus trees add a glorious blaze of colour in the depths of winter – just a common old lemon and a very productive mandarin tree in this photo, but the orange trees we have scattered through the ornamental gardens are also indubitably orange and a very cheerful sight for that.

IMG_8464And it is hard to ignore the glory of the persimmon tree, be the sky grey or blue. It is a feature of our climate that we have high sunshine hours and bright, clear light even in mid-winter, albeit interspersed with the rain. We don’t get many days when it is irredeemably grey and gloomy, without spells of clear skies.

IMG_8673The tamarillos are also hanging decoratively. These used to be known as ‘tree tomatoes’, botanically Solanum betaceum. Apparently the ravages of the potato psyllid have hit commercial production hard, but our plants just continue on in a regime of benign neglect. The fruit is usually stewed with sugar but stewed fruit is not part of our diet. I enjoy them more as a fruit cordial. Mark’s father used to like eating them sliced on wholemeal bread with a little raw, chopped onion. The yellow fruit beneath are windfall grapefruit.

IMG_8684But to the flowers. On the left, we have the vestiges of autumn – salvias, impatiens, tree dahlia hybrids, daisies and Oxalis peduncularis. At the front are a few berries and seeds – baby figs from Ficus antiarus,  Nandina domestica ‘Richmond’ , a small berrying shrub whose name escapes me at the moment and the showy seeds from Arisaema speciosum.

Moving to the middle, the winter bloomers include, excitingly, the first of the bulbs – Lachenalias aloides and reflexa, a brave jonquil and the lesser known Phaedranassa carmioli (both Mark and I had to look that one up). The big yellow candlewick flower is Jacobinia chrysostephana adjacent to the flowers of Ligularia reniformis  and what I think is still classified as a datura, not a brugmansia. Also included is an early flowering clivia and Agapetes serpens.

There is only one red azalea out so far, several red camellias but interestingly, the stars are the vireya rhododendrons – plenty of these frost tender subtropicals flowering their socks off and lighting up the woodlands. I guess they speak volumes about the nature of a Tikorangi winter. We should not be complaining too much.

Hovenia dulcis (1)Finally I offer you… the ‘fruit’ of the Japanese raisin tree, Hovenia dulcis. I am guessing that as our plant is maybe 20 years old and planted in a somewhat out of the way position, we just haven’t noticed these before. They are actually the swollen tips of the stems and are edible. They even taste fruity, in a raisin-ish sort of way. Apparently drying them makes them even more raisin-y. It is more a curiosity than an edible essential, but we like these odd additions to our diet here.

Tikorangi notes – winter, reversions and grubby knees

IMG_8604‘tis the winter solstice today. This marks the point where the days will start to lengthen again, which is always encouraging. However, it usually marks the point where we descend into the worst of winter weather from here through July. But I tell myself that a winter so brief is not too bad, really.  We are still enjoying plenty of autumn colour – which is more early winter colour here – and more camellias are opening every day. The spring bulbs are pushing through the ground.

Casimiroa edulis

Casimiroa edulis

The absence of any significant frost means the tree dahlias and luculia flower on and we are eating the white sapote crop (Casimiroa edulis). Now there is a taste of the tropics in mid-winter.

IMG_8616I had been meaning to photograph this reversion on a dwarf conifer. Many plant selections, especially amongst the conifer families, are sports or aberrations on a parent plant. Part of plant trialling is to test that sport for stability but even so, you may often see reversions to the original plant. Generally, it is going to be much stronger growing so if you don’t cut it off, over time it will dominate. A quick snip with the secateurs was all that was required on this little dwarf in the sunken garden. The major growth that Mark removed from the top of the variegated conifer in the centre of this photo required a tall ladder, some tree climbing and a pole saw.

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IMG_8619Reversions are also apparent in these perennials. The silver leafed ajuga to the left is showing reversion to plain green. While that particular ajuga is not my favourite (the silver reminds me a bit much of thrip-infested foliage on rhododendrons), it is better than the boring green which barely blooms. I weeded out an ever-growing patch of the plain green. The other little groundcover must have a name but I have no idea what it is. The clean white variegation is sharp and smart but it has a definite inclination to revert to its plain green form, which is much stronger growing. The same rules apply where variegated hostas are reverting to a plain colour. If you want to keep the variegated form, cut out the reversion or you will end up with just plain foliage.

I like the yellow polyanthus with blue corydalis but the polyanthus need relatively frequent lifting and dividing to stay looking good

I like the yellow polyanthus with blue corydalis but the polyanthus need relatively frequent lifting and dividing to stay looking good

I have been much preoccupied with digging and dividing perennials. Still. This may be ongoing but the good news is that the more you dig and divide, the easier it is because the soil doesn’t compact as hard. Over time, I am sure I may cast out some of the plants that need very frequent digging and dividing to stay looking good (particularly polyanthus) but at this stage, I am fine with grubbing about in the garden borders on my hands and knees. Mark laughs at me. Even though I use a kneeling pad, I am a grubby gardener. There are no two ways about that. Mark can come in from the garden, wash his hands and be relatively clean. I come in and have to soak clothes in a bucket of cold water, to loosen the dirt before washing them.

Why so much digging and dividing? Because I am on a steep learning curve with perennials. In the main, I would say that we are pretty knowledgeable about gardening with trees, shrubs and bulbs. But gardening well with perennials is a whole different ball game. I went looking at local gardens a few years ago and it was a revelation to me how badly otherwise-reasonably-competent gardeners managed underplantings. There is so much to learn – not only what perennials like which conditions (that is the easiest bit), but which perennials combine well together, have compatible growth habits and stay looking good over a long period of time. Landscapers usually take the easy path – mass plant a large area with a single variety that will like the conditions. But that is not our style. It is the combinations that make it interesting and take the garden through the seasons.

January 27 this year

January 27 this year

And on June 20

And on June 20

Because we have some big plans for all-new perennial gardens, we have both been turning our attention to learning more about the specific  requirements of many varieties and how best to manage them. This is not a six month project. More like a six year one, at least. But with perennials, the results are quick. I lifted much of the messy swimming pool garden in late January (mid-summer and I didn’t water because there is no tap nearby) and replanted a block with Dietes grandiflora and an ornamental taro. For a while they sat around wilting in the extended autumn heat. But look at it now, in mid-June. The dietes haven’t moved but still have green foliage so they are biding their time for spring. The taro looks great. When a combination works, it is hugely satisfying. When it stays working all year and into the next few years with minimal attention, that is even better.

When perennial plantings work well - Curculigo recurvata with Ligularia reniformis (also in the pool garden)

When perennial plantings work well – Curculigo recurvata with Ligularia reniformis (also in the pool garden)

The saga of Yucca whipplei

Yucca whipplei did at least give total privacy from garden visitors when sitting indoors

Yucca whipplei did at least give total privacy from garden visitors when sitting indoors

It was a bit of a milestone here last week as we completed the task of Moving Yucca Whipplei. This has been such a long story that I even have a folder of photos on my computer devoted to the move. When we planted the yucca in the narrow border by the house getting on for 30 years ago (I am pretty sure Felix was still alive at the time), I guess we figured it would be a tidy mound of grey foliage in that difficult dry border. Obviously neither Mark nor I looked it up and this would have been prior to the age when it was easy to do a quick net search.

But Yucca whipplei grew. And grew until it blocked almost the entire window of our TV room. While not as fiercely prickly as some members of the yucca family, it was not a plant with which you would want to tangle. I stopped cleaning the outside of that set of windows. A few years ago I declared I wanted it gone, which to Mark meant it had to be moved, not destroyed.

After more than 25 years, it flowered

After more than 25 years, it flowered

005Our ever handy man on the spot, Lloyd, cut back the concrete in anticipation of the move. That was on June 14, 2012. But time passed and other jobs always seemed more urgent. Towards the end of 2014, we spotted a flower spike forming. That was pretty exciting, given that the plant was over 25 years old and had never bloomed before. Moving it was out of the question.

The flower was a delight. Spectacular, even, as it grew ever bigger – reaching past the roof on the lower storey of the house. The flower passed and still the yucca remained.

Peaking above the roof on the first storey

Peaking above the roof on the first storey

Come September last year, the men were coming to install double glazing on that window so the main spike was cut down and removed. This was no mean feat. Mark had hoped he could chainsaw it off but the leaves just chewed up and choked the chainsaw. There was no alternative to clippers and a hand saw.

Removing the main stem last year

Removing the main stem last year

The remaining stump sprouted most enthusiastically and this year, I created the ideal spot out of the way on a sunny hillside where it could be relocated to its forever home. Fortunately, a yucca is not like a tree where the root system is critical but even so, it was a fairly major exercise to dig it out and then lift it away. It is now safely planted well away from any windows and we hope to see it flourish. The hot, sunny, protected position left vacant outside our TV room windows is destined to be the new home for a frangipani that has been waiting in the wings (which is to say, in Mark’s covered house). We are extremely marginal for a frangipani, but I have my fingers crossed.

The final removal was no small task and involved two men, a tractor and a heavy chain

The final removal was no small task and involved two men, a tractor and a heavy chain

I see I wrote in October last year: “As far as we know, this is Yucca whipplei, also known as Hesperoyucca whipplei, chaparral yucca, Our Lord’s candle, Spanish bayonet, Quixote yucca or foothill yucca. So Wikipedia tells me. Apparently the most common name is Our Lord’s candle. It being native to southern America from California through to Mexico, it clearly felt right at home in the bone dry conditions of the house border beneath the eaves.”

Yuccan whipplei in its 'forever home"

Yuccan whipplei in its ‘forever home”

That chapter has closed. Our Lord’s candle is set to burn with renewed vigour over on the sunny hillside.

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The Golden Camellias of China and Vietnam

It was raining at Foshan Institute of Forestry Science where they have extensive plantings of yellow species, mainly C. nitidissima. It is thought that the flowers face downwards and are nestled beneath the foliage to protect them from the heavy raindrops they would receive in their forest habitat.

It was raining at Foshan Institute of Forestry Science where they have extensive plantings of yellow species, mainly C. nitidissima. It is thought that the flowers face downwards and are nestled beneath the foliage to protect them from the heavy raindrops they would receive in their forest habitat.

There was a fine specimen of C. nitidissima in the Confucian temple gardens in Dali. The heavy textured buds look more like hanging fruit than emerging flowers. Our plant at Tikorangi has never bloomed this freely.

There was a fine specimen of C. nitidissima in the Confucian temple gardens in Dali. The heavy textured buds look more like hanging fruit than emerging flowers. Our plant at Tikorangi has never bloomed this freely.

While we talk about yellow camellias, in China they refer to golden camellias, often in tones of reverence and awe.

Camellia Jury's Yellow on the honours table at the national camellia show in Dali

Camellia Jury’s Yellow on the honours table at the national camellia show in Dali

By the time Mark Jury (yes, my Mark) started breeding camellias, his renowned camellia-breeding uncle, Les Jury, was quite elderly and happy to share his experience and goals. It seems remarkable that 45 years after he first registered ‘Jury’s Yellow’, it is still widely grown and sold and we even saw it on the honours table at the National Camellia Show in China in February. ‘Gwenneth Morey’ and ‘Brushfield’s Yellow’ are Australian camellias of that era also heading down the yellow camellia path, but it seems that Les’s version is the one with staying power.

None of these breeders of the 1960s and 70s had access to yellow species. They would not even have known of their existence, but always there is that quest to extend the colour range. Les explained to Mark that he thought it might be possible to get the golden stamens to bleed colour into the petaloids (the tiny petals that comprise the centre of an anemone-formed camellia). It worked. These early three yellows all have pale lemon coloured centres with the outer circles of petals remaining white. They were colour breaks in their time but they all originated from white japonicas. The trouble was that there really was nowhere else to go from there, in breeding terms, to try and intensify the yellow.

Enter the yellow species. Even I can remember the waves of excitement in the camellia world when C. chrysantha became available. Suddenly it appeared that there would be a huge range of new directions in camellias. Don’t hold your breath. It ain’t that easy and it is not for want of trying. After maybe fifty years and probably hundreds of thousands of crosses, there haven’t been many encouraging results out of China. Japanese breeders have been very active without many results and we have never heard of anything coming from other international breeders.

The Best in Show award went to a yellow hybrid

The Best in Show award went to a yellow hybrid

‘New Century’ shows good colour but it was not possible to tell if the bloom opens more than this specimen in the show

‘New Century’ shows good colour but it was not possible to tell if the bloom opens more than this specimen in the show

True, the Best in Show award at the Chinese nationals went to a fine yellow hybrid and there was another promising yellow coloured bloom called ‘New Century’ on the table. But those are cut flowers looked at in isolation. There are many other factors to be taken into account to determine garden worthiness. We also saw a few other results from breeding programmes – one flushed palest yellow with pink on the outer petals. It was a hybrid but not of great note. Others just seemed to throw to the japonica parentage. Kunming camellia breeder, Shen Yunguang, said that she was crossing the yellows with a white japonica – the latter will be to get greater size and floriferous characteristics – but the yellow species do not appear to be keen to cross with other types.

The Chinese national camellia show was staged in a temple in the heart of Dali Old Town. The yellow cultivars stood out amongst the more usual pinks, reds and whites

The Chinese national camellia show was staged in a temple in the heart of Dali Old Town. The yellow cultivars stood out amongst the more usual pinks, reds and whites

If it is possible to get a range of good yellow hybrids, the Chinese will do it but I doubt that it is imminent. What about orange ones? Can the next generation look forward to yellow camellias being crossed with red ones, to give a new colour altogether? International yellow camellia expert, Dr George Orel is pretty sure it can’t happen because of the incompatible genetic codes between the yellows and the reds. I am sure it is not for want of trying but the yellows are notoriously difficult in hybridising.

I asked Mark if he saw breeding potential in the new species that are still being discovered. He shrugged his shoulders and said, from his point of view, no. They are tropical, too tropical for New Zealand. He is also realistic enough to know that if the Chinese and major international breeders from other countries have found them hugely difficult to cross with other camellias, it will be a fluke if a minor breeder in another part of the world comes up with something worthwhile. It is just as well he doesn’t want the newly discovered species because with our closed borders, bringing in a new species of anything is devilishly expensive and difficult.

Camellia nitidissima (or chrysantha) – the one good flowering we have had on our plant in 2011

Camellia nitidissima (or chrysantha) – the one good flowering we have had on our plant in 2011

Chrysantha or nitidissima?
The most common yellow species in the west and, I understand, the one widely used for flower tea in China was originally distributed under the name of Camellia chrysantha. It is now more usually named as C. nitidissima syn chrysantha – in other words, you can use either name but nitidissima has precedence. We bought it from Neville Haydon at Camellia Haven as soon as it became available. It has handsome bullate foliage – heavily veined and textured leaves – but in all the years since we have had it, I think it has only flowered well once. It wasn’t helped by a pear tree falling upon it but it has reached quite a large size and is now at least 20 years old, if not more. The other yellow species we have here have never bloomed. This is not to say that they won’t bloom in other parts of the country, at least further north.

Collectors’ plants vs good garden plants
The yellow species are what I would call collectors’ plants – really interesting to have and exciting when they flower. But good garden plants? Not so much. All the species I saw had small flowers and not that many of them at any one time. The flowers usually face downwards and are on the underside of the branches. They are also quite picky about growing conditions and many were sparse in foliage. A good garden plant is a reliable performer that will delight your average home gardener and, with camellias, that means a reasonably long season of mass blooming. This is why there is so much interest in creating good hybrids. If you want to grow any of the yellow species, remember that these are understory plants of the forest, growing in humus-rich soils. They need overhead shade but also sufficient light to enable them to set flower buds.

Shen Yunguang is responsible for managing the covered house that contains the yellow camellia species at Kunming Botanic Gardens, where it is too cold to grow them outdoors. While it appears more usual to use the yellow species as the pollen donor, she is also trying to cross using them as seed setter. The hanging pink labels mark her crosses. To the left is Professor Wang Zhonglang from Kunming Botanical Institute

Shen Yunguang is responsible for managing the covered house that contains the yellow camellia species at Kunming Botanic Gardens, where it is too cold to grow them outdoors. While it appears more usual to use the yellow species as the pollen donor, she is also trying to cross using them as seed setter. The hanging pink labels mark her crosses. To the left is Professor Wang Zhonglang from Kunming Botanical Institute

C. chuongtsoensis (photo by Tony Barnes)

C. chuongtsoensis (photo by Tony Barnes)

C. longzhouensis (photo by Tony Barnes)

C. longzhouensis (photo by Tony Barnes)

C. impressinervis (photo by Tony Barnes)

C. impressinervis (photo by Tony Barnes)

Camellia nitidissima was first described and named in 1948. In 1960, a wild population was found growing near the southern border of China with Vietnam and it was named C. chrysantha (hence the two names). It wasn’t until the 1980s that the west realised there was a yellow camellia species and it remains the only one commercially available in any significant numbers.
However, since the 1980s, there has been an explosion of interest in yellow species and modern day plant explorers are continuing to find new ones, particularly in Vietnam. It is a fluid situation. There appear to be anything between 28 and 60 different yellow species. It is likely that some will be reclassified as variants on existing species while new ones will continue to be identified. There are at least six notable public collections of yellow camellias in Chinese institutions. I visited the one at Kunming Botanic Gardens where they are grown under cover. We also saw extensive outdoor plantings in Foshan near Guangzhou. The differences in flower form between species are not great to the untrained eye. All appear to have small blooms around 4cm across, usually semi double (two rows of petals) with a large boss of golden stamens in the centre. The heavy substance of the petals is remarkable, making them look waxed and solid.

 Tea made from the golden flowers was served to us on a number of occasions and is very pretty


Tea made from the golden flowers was served to us on a number of occasions and is very pretty

Drying the flowers and buds for tea in Foshan

Drying the flowers and buds for tea in Foshan

When we talk about new species being discovered, we should remind ourselves that this is being discovered by botanists. Local residents will have known about these plants throughout history. Tea made from the golden camellia flowers is widely served on ceremonial occasions and is now a commercial venture. It seems unlikely it only dates back to the 1980s.

What does golden camellia tea taste like, you may wonder. Subtle, is all I can say. Beautiful to look at, with a subtle floral aroma and taste.

Artist Xinger Li with her lovely painting titled (in English) ‘Chinese Camellia with Dense Dew”

Artist Xinger Li with her lovely painting titled (in English) ‘Chinese Camellia with Dense Dew”

 The foliage on C. impressinervis, as on C. nitidissima and some of the other species, is heavily veined and textured (called bullate)

The foliage on C. impressinervis, as on C. nitidissima and some of the other species, is heavily veined and textured (called bullate)

First published in New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission. 

Stop press: one of our other yellow species in the garden here has set flower buds for the first time, after maybe fifteen or twenty years. We will be watching it closely and now we just have to try and unravel which species it is. The label has long since gone. 

Camellia stars

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Camellia heartland in Dali with cultural performances. The dancing girls are holding oversized camellias


It is looking as if this is to be the year of the camellia for us. We went to China in February, to join the International Camellia Society’s biennial congress and it has been non-stop camellias since.

Camellia High Fragrance  (photo by Tony Barnes)

Camellia High Fragrance (photo by Tony Barnes)

While the congress in Dali was wall to wall reticulatas (more on these in my August NZ Gardener column), one New Zealand cultivar has made inroads to the heady world of Chinese camellias where they otherwise show complete loyalty to their own. The late Jim Findlay from Whangarei spent many years working on scented camellias and it would not be exaggerating to say that his ‘High Fragrance’ is a sensation in China – regarded with reverence, even. It is a shame Jim is not still around to enjoy the accolades and honour from the home of camellias.

Dali prides itself on being camellia heartland.  Even aside from the colourful displays and ceremonies associated with hosting what was seen as a highly prestigious congress, it was clear that the camellia is a cultural icon unmatched by anything I can think of in New Zealand, except perhaps rugby. It was celebrated in song, dance, art, branding, decoration and, above all else, in plants by the thousand, nay, tens of thousands, grown in containers and displayed everywhere.

Pink form of C. sinensis

Pink form of C. sinensis

Travelling across hemispheres, we arrived home in early March to find our earliest camellias already in bloom. C. sinensis is the proper tea camellia and one form we have has the daintiest and earliest little pink blooms. It is, of course, primarily grown for its young foliage which we sometimes harvest for the freshest green tea experience possible. Lightly crushing the leaves and leaving them to ferment overnight in a warm place gives a stronger flavour, reminiscent even of our favoured Earl Grey. Inspired by our Chinese experience, I am determined to be more organised and consistent in harvesting the foliage in spring this year though we are not going to reach self sufficiency.

Camellia brevistyla

Camellia brevistyla

The other very early bloomer for us is Camellia brevistyla, with its dainty white flowers. It is a bit ephemeral with its flowering season (the extremely similar C. microphylla lasts longer) but its small leafed, compact form lends it to clipping so we are happy to let it keep its little space in the garden.
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Sasanqua camellias in autumn

By mid May and into June, it is the sasanqua camellias that take centre stage as the dominant flowering shrubs in the garden. Most of the sasanqua species originated in Japan and in the camellia heydays through to the early 1990s, they were often seen as the utility relative – good for hedging and sun tolerant but lacking the substance and flower form that were prized in the japonicas and hybrids. Fashions change with time and these days I really like the softer flower form and the smaller foliage which is usually a good dark green colour and ideal for clipping and shaping. Also, the early bloomers of the season lift the spirits on grey days of late autumn going into winter.

Camellia petal blight

Camellia petal blight

The other huge bonus of the sasanquas  is that they do not get petal blight which has cut the display of later flowering types. The ravages of petal blight (technically Ciborinia camelliae) have been a huge disappointment to us and pretty much stopped the inter-generational Jury camellia breeding programme in mid stride. It was particularly interesting in China to see blight and discuss it with professionals from other countries. Australia is still free from it (a good argument for tight border control), but Asia, Europe and the USA are all afflicted.

I spoke to an Italian researcher who gave hope. They have found a biological cure (another fungus, in fact) which is working well in laboratory conditions but not yet in the field (or garden). Maybe over time, there is light at the end of the blighted tunnel. In the meantime, what struck us was that while we saw it through the areas of China we visited and discussed it with Europeans, it was nowhere near as bad as we get here at home. Mark ruefully commented that maybe we have the worst blight in the world. While our coastal Taranaki winters are mild and we get bright sun, we also get a lot of rain and high humidity – optimum conditions for anything fungal, really. China was dry. Maybe gardeners in dry parts of New Zealand like Hawkes Bay and Central Otago are correspondingly less affected?

Camellias continue to play a valued role in our garden but the nature of that role has changed in response to  wretched blight.

IMG_2845First published in the June issue of NZ Gardener and reprinted here with their permission. 
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