Sad thoughts on camellias

We used to take perfection in camellia blooms for granted

Why did this camellia make me so sad that I picked it to photograph it? It is just a pretty, formal japonica-type that is an unnamed seedling, known here as ‘Mimosa’s sister’ because it is of the same breeding that produced the beautiful pink formal that Felix Jury liked so much he named it for his wife, Mimosa Jury. The answer is because it is a rare sight, now – a perfect, undamaged bloom.

When we set up the nursery in the early 1980s, rhododendrons and camellias were our main lines. The former have fallen from favour these days, the latter have been decimated by camellia petal blight. Mark’s dad, Felix, loved the formal flower shape so much that most he named were of this form – ‘Waterlily’, ‘Dreamboat’, ‘Softly’, ‘Julie Felix’ and ‘Mimosa Jury’. The first two are international classics now and ‘Mimosa Jury’ deserves to be there, too.

These days, this is a more common sight – blooms showing various stages of unsightly damage

We still have many camellias in our garden, both of Jury breeding and named cultivars from around the world. Right now should be peak display for the japonicas, hybrids and reticulatas but camellia petal blight has dealt a death blow to that. It is maybe two decades since we have had a good early spring display and we will never see it again from that grouping of mass bloomers. It really is a bit sad to lose a major family of flowers. We keep the plants we want for shelter, overhead cover and as background filler plants but now without the pleasure of a clean floral display.

Sadly, even the interesting tropical yellow species like Camellia nitidissima suffer from petal blight in our conditions 

More of botanical interest than rewarding garden plant – Camellia nitidissima again

Camellia petal blight is a problem throughout much of the world. Australia hasn’t got it and long may their border control keep it out. As I commented after attending the International Camellia Congress in China,  it is not as devastating in other areas as ours. It is nowhere near as bad in dry climates. But here, with our generally mild climate, high rainfall and high humidity all year round, it is as bad as it can be. I doubt that we will plant another japonica or reticulata in our gardening lifetime. Were we still selling plants, we would have contracted our range to sasanquas, the garden-worthy species and some of the tiny flowered cultivars that don’t show a problem with petal blight because each individual flower only lasts a few days.

There is work going on to try and breed for blight-resistant choices but they are limited to tiny flowered cultivars as far as I have seen. I do not think we will ever see the japonicas and reticulatas free of blight. The progress on trying to find a treatment for petal blight is painfully slow and if it comes about, it may be suitable for treating individual specimen plants but not for the mass plantings that New Zealand went for in the past.

At the time it was discovered, it was only in four places in Wellington and could have been eradicated but it wasn’t seen a priority, either high or low. So it spread – everywhere. The theory back then was that it may have come in on a corsage being worn by an airline passenger from the west coast of USA where it was already well established. From such minor events can a major change be brought about.

Most of our camellias look more like this now – hanging on to blighted blooms

I just feel a bit sad that I won’t see the mass display of beautiful blooms that we took for granted for so long. If you live in a drier climate, they are probably still a viable option. Look around and see if the garden plants in your area are putting on a clean display and dropping their spent blooms (blighted blooms usually stay hanging on the bush). If, like here, there are no mass displays of blooms any longer, I would be looking at planting other options than the larger flowered camellia types. When you come from the camellia family of Jury, that is bleak advice.

Ever the Pollyanna, I should finish on a positive note. Fortunately there are plenty of other beautiful flowering plants we can choose from for this time of year. Look at the range of colours Mark is getting to in his breeding work on garden-friendly michelia shrubs. Most of these are also blessed with good fragrance which is not common in camellias.

A touch of Africa in Waitara

Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkopf’ and Dracaena draco, both from the Canary Islands

When I was photographing the Magnolia ‘Felix Jury’ plants in my local town of Waitara on Thursday, I stopped to photograph this small public garden by the river. I remember thinking when it went in about 15 years ago that it was a most unusual and extravagant planting by the Council. Local authorities are always strapped for cash and, when money is short, Waitara has a history of coming off second best to more affluent areas which are better at lobbying and demanding quality. The money, as I recall, came from a charitable trust and I am guessing an outside designer had a hand on this project.

Some red flowered aloe that neither of us could name

It was the mass of red flowering aloes that particularly caught my attention this week but I have thought about this planting on and off for years. Culturally, with its heavy African influence, it is like a fish out of water. But logically, is it any more culturally alien than the gleditsias planted down the main street, the bedding plants around the clock tower or indeed the magnolias I had just photographed? Would I have raised my eyebrows had it been a more conventional planting of cherry trees from Japan, daffodils and tulips, maybe with kowhai (our native sophora)? Most of our plantings in this country, be they public or private, are a mix of exotic and native plants.

Our own Aloe plicatilis have never reached this stature

And there are plenty of native plantings nearby – opposite on Manukorihi Hill, the pohutukawa that we managed to save from the ravages of the flood engineer downstream (as I recall, we lost about 29 to the chainsaws but saved over 80), extensive mixed native plantings upstream on the river flats. Literally a few doors down the road is a little pocket park that has been lovingly and just as carefully landscaped in natives.

Strelitzias from South Africa with the rock gabions visible behind as part of flood protection. The river is just behind the gabions.

There is no arguing that in this free draining, frost-free, sunny situation on the riverside, very close to the sea, these African plants are thriving. The stone gabions in the background are the latest addition to the stopbanks to get additional height to hold back floodwaters. Like much of coastal NZ, large parts of Waitara have been built on the flood plain and that is looking increasingly precarious these days. And this planting has prospered in a maintenance regime that is public sector, so not intensive and it will be a lot less intensive than bedding plants.

Mark tells me it is a Butia capitata which is actually South American. Looking terrific with a bed of native libertia at its feet. 

The attempt to incorporate our native nikau palm is not as successful in such an open situation. Many of our native plants have evolved to grow in close company.

I was discussing this with Mark and he made a comment that was like a lightbulb moment for me. “Well, it hasn’t been vandalised in all those years.” He is so right. Vandalism of public plantings is a larger issue than people stripping pretty flowers or stealing plants. Maybe this one just looks too prickly?

More aeoniums (with the only piece of litter I saw – spot the can) and Dracaena draco again

While it may strike me as slightly incongruous in its local context, this exotic planting owes much to the style of landscaping favoured at the time for upmarket, domestic gardens in the big city of Auckland. The interesting thing about it in this situation is how well it has done in the conditions and how it has matured gracefully over the years. Fifteen years without anything more than routine maintenance is like a lifetime in public plantings.

Agave attenuata is actually Mexican so this is quite an international planting. Like Aloe plicatilis, it is way more impressive in this open, coastal situation than in the sheltered conditions of our inland garden.

I am not so keen on the blue painted seats, lights, rubbish bins and the like but that is my personal taste. I prefer the plants to star rather than the man-made conveniences. The planting is not pretty in the conventional sense, it lacks all cultural context* – but it works. And it is undeniably different to every other public planting I have seen in our district.

*When I mention cultural context, it may perhaps help if I explain that the ONLY building of architectural significance that I can think of in Waitara is the meeting house on Ōwae Marae, the most important marae for Te Āti Awa, one of Taranaki’s pre-eminent Maori iwi, or tribes.

Photos at Ōwae Marae taken earlier at a government select committee hearing

 

 

 

The magnoliafication of our local town

Our flagship magnolia, ‘Felix Jury’

Back in our nursery days, we used to send our reject plants down to be given away, sometimes sold for just a dollar or two, at a local op shop that a good friend was closely involved with. There are always reject plants that don’t make the grade to sell – usually due to being poorly shaped or sometimes over-produced –  and it seemed a good solution. Our local town of Waitara is what is often politely described as ‘lower socio economic’. There isn’t a lot of spare cash in the community and no local plant retailers so we saw it as a means of encouraging planting in an area where most people wouldn’t buy plants.

In the early days, we had more reject plants of Magnolia Felix Jury than we would have liked so quite a few of those went down to be dispersed and I quipped at the time that if only a quarter of them grew, they would make their mark. The magnoliafication of Waitara, I used to describe it.

Iolanthe to the left, Felix to to the right

This year was the first year I have really started to notice Felix in bloom locally. It is unmistakeable with its enormous flowers so I drove down just a few streets, Felix-spotting, when I went to the supermarket yesterday. I doubt that the locals know that it was bred locally, named for a long-term resident and is now our flagship magnolia internationally but that doesn’t matter. It is just pretty spectacular and will continue to get better year on year. Magnolias are long-lived plants if they are allowed to be. I was a week too late to catch them with the best colour, but you can see what I mean.

Best colour – it fades out with age as the season progresses

We can get deeper and richer colour here than in some other parts of the world. Why? We don’t know whether soils, seasonal weather or climate affect it. All Mark is willing to say is that the stronger the plant is growing, the better the colour it achieves. I am loathe to recommend piling on the fertiliser; we never do and we don’t think it is good practice. We plant well, keep them mulched and will feed with compost if a plant needs a boost. Other gardeners like to manage feeding differently but the advice from the breeder is to get your plants established and growing well and you may find the colours are richer.

Next year, I shall get around a week or two earlier to catch the local plants in peak bloom. By then, I will have canvassed local friends to find the location of more trees.

Poor light and nearly finished, but another local Felix

The trouble with daffodils

The bulb meadow on Marsland Hill

I headed back to see the bulb meadow in town that I wrote about a fortnight ago to see how it was evolving. My friend Susan had told me that this and another beside the race course opposite New Plymouth Boys High School had both been planted by Fiesta Bulbs about four years ago. The first year, she said, they were absolutely glorious. The second year, there was so little flowering that she thought ‘well that was a one season wonder’. But now they are at least staging some repeat blooming .

Where purple meets yellow – I really don’t like those murky brown tones 

The clear blue that was also used is my preference

The Marsland Hill planting is being carried by the Dutch iris. They are simply splendid and I think I need more of these easy-care bulbs to carry some of our own larger scale meadow plantings. I still particularly dislike the purple and yellow variety with the brown tones (sorry, pcsecretary who left a comment disagreeing with this assessment but at least I found out that you should be able to source it from Fiesta Bulbs, if you live in NZ) but there was also a clearer blue one being used and the pastel variety didn’t look so anaemic with many more of it in flower. So a big ups to the Dutch iris.

Too much leafage! Poor light conditions but you can see what I mean in the planting by the racecourse

But the daffodils – too much leafage. This was even more the case on the racecourse plantings where fewer Dutch iris were used. This is why Mark has never been a daffy fan when it comes to garden plants. Dwarf narcissi – yes, in abundance. Big full-on daffodils, no. The foliage swamps them and the flower heads are too heavy to hold up well in the spring wind and rain.

Pretty enough at home but still too high a ratio of foliage to flower. And the outer blooms all fall over in the weather. 

I came home and looked at my patch on the back lawn and thought yes, there is too much foliage there for the number of flowers. And I don’t think the ratio of blooms to leafage is going to get better.

Big daffs are best as show blooms and cut flowers 

Narcissus x odorus never drowns in its foliage but its season in bloom is brief

The big daffodils are better as show blooms and cut flowers. But as meadow plants, not so much. I looked again at the narcissi we are growing at home. Narcissus x odorus (N. jonquilla x N. pseudonarcissus) is gorgeous, fragrant, does not have a lot of foliage to drown in but its flowering season is brief.  ‘Tête-à-tête’ (I assume it is meant to have the French accents) is a great performer which keeps on blooming well even when left undisturbed for many years – most narcissi respond brilliantly to being lifted, divided and replanted but stop flowering as they get congested. Ditto ‘Twilight’ and most of the cyclamineus types we grow. Bulbocodiums are not so good for meadows because you can’t pick the foliage from grass when it is coming through.

I rather think that meadows may be better with alternative bulbs like ixias, strong growing lachenalias, sparaxis and tritonias. And Dutch iris. Daffs are not compulsory.

Maybe a N. pseudonarcissus hybrid rather than a straight species selection

A Facebook friend posted a photo of her double daffodil which was most likely a form of the wild N. pseudonarcissus. I asked Mark if this one flowering in woodland conditions here was too. He didn’t know on that one but directed me down to the old orchard area established by his great grandmother, where the old classic is growing. Okay, there weren’t many flowers but that patch has been there, undisturbed, for anything up to 140 years, which is quite amazing really. It is the common old double that is often found growing wild alongside snowflakes (leucojums) on the sites of original early settler cottages. N. pseudonarcissus is a wild daffodil throughout the UK and Europe, more commonly single but the double has long been prized as a garden plant. It has the same problem of the weight of the head dragging the flower down but at least this one has some personal history for us.

Great grandmother’s flowers – snowflake (leucojum, not snowdrop), double daffodil (wild N. pseudonarcissus) and grape hyacinth (muscari, not bluebell)

The upshot of all this is that it is entirely understandable that, in this day and age, Council would contract a commercial bulb supplier to come in and plant a designated area. But if you want to establish a bulb meadow at home that has greater longevity, there is no substitute for spending some time observing and researching. And shun selections that are best as cut flowers – unless they are Dutch iris which seem to be able to fill both roles.

Learning botanical art in practice

I mentioned the introduction to botanical art workshops being offered in the garden here during the annual Taranaki Garden Festival. For the past two Sundays, Dr Tabatha Forbes has given private lessons to Mark and a friend. This is not my field at all so I spent the time gardening but it was great to see Mark picking up pencil and paintbrush again after a hiatus of about 35 years – and getting a result even I am not going to embarrass him by reproducing here.

I would be misleading you if I didn’t mention that the festival workshops will not be in our dining room (we don’t have enough space there), but I thought some readers might be interested to get some insight into the approach Tabatha takes.

The first day was spent drawing leaves in pencil, refreshing basic drawing skills.

The second day was painting. Tabatha prefers acrylics because they lend themselves to building up layers of colour. By the end of that day, both Mark and our friend had their first painting more or less completed. Mark painted a small spray of Camellia ‘Tiny Princess’, our friend painted a spray of Loropetalum ‘China Pink’.

Work in progress

My earlier post gives more information here.

Brief details are:

When: Saturday 2 and Sunday 3 November from 10am -3pm each day for beginners.

November 9 and 10 –  going on to the next level – berries and fruit.

Where: here in our garden at Tikorangi

Cost: $100 per two-day workshop. All materials provided.

For more information contact Tabatha at drtab72@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

The plant breeder’s garden

“It’s very white out there,” he said

“It is very white out there,” Mark observed. We were standing in the roller door of our large shed, sheltering from another rainy squall and looking out to the new summer perennial gardens. The photo doesn’t fully convey the white experience. The row of Fairy Magnolia White, Camellia yuhsienensis and Mark’s hedges of michelia seedlings were all in view. Mark was envisaging a carpet of snowdrops at ground level as well, even though they are but a fleeting delight. I was looking at the michelia seedlings.

Mark has planted two sides of the new garden area in michelia hedges. Technically – in accurate nomenclature – these are all magnolias now but we continue to use the earlier term ‘michelia’ for the sake of clarity. When we say ‘magnolia’ here, we are almost always referring to deciduous magnolia trees so it is confusing to include the world of evergreen michelias which also feature very large in our lives at this time of the year.

Some of the seedlings are simply gorgeous but won’t be named

When planting seedlings, it means every plant will be different. For the largest length of visible hedge, he planted out one particular cross that had not come out as he hoped because very few were coloured. The nature of the parentage means that they will flower well, not grow out of control and be suited to clipping but they will never have the precision of planting a row that is all one clone – in other words, identical to each other. Mark likes seedlings for mass plantings because it adds interest to have them all similar but not identical.

Others are pretty on their day but floppy blooms don’t cut the mustard

I paced along his hedging, estimating how many individual plants there are. Getting close to 200, was the answer, planted at about 30cm spacings because we want a quick hedge that can be trimmed as required. Each individual plant in bloom is lovely on its day but some are lovelier than others. However, none will be named and put into commercial production. Mark has already named Fairy Magnolia White and Fairy Magnolia Cream and he won’t name any more white or cream ones unless there is something that is radically different or a major improvement. So these are ours to enjoy alone.

Heading into pink 

Part of a breeding breakthrough in colour but not good enough to select

At one end, there are about three different pink-toned varieties which are something of an oddity in amongst the cream and white majority. Again, he has already named Fairy Magnolia Blush in this colour range so they will just stay as a quirky aberration in the hedge at flowering time. We are okay with quirks.

Hardy michelias are basically white or cream. While there are new tropical species still being discovered and some of those show more colour, Mark has no interest in trying to breed with them, even if we could get them into the country to work with. Most of the michelias are not overly hardy at the best of times and he has been trying to get hardier selections (will they grow well and flower consistently in places like the UK, is one of his measures) without introducing more tropical genes. But he has managed to get as far as pinks, purples and primrose yellow by ever more complex crosses using the material he has available.

From white through to pinks and purples with a few heading into pale yellow –  blooms from the breeding programme

I see it was four years ago that I set out to pick a representation of single blooms from his seedlings to show the range in colour, flower size and shape that he has reached in what is predominantly a white or cream plant genus. While he has continued to flower more since, this photo remains a fair summary. We have selected three new ones that are currently in propagation and performance trials for probable release but there is a whole lot more to selecting a plant than the just flowers. My lips are sealed as to what makes these three worth singling out until we are further down the track of commercial trials.

Fairy Magnolia Cream just coming into flower

In case you are interested in what goes into selecting a plant (or you want to name something you have found), off the top of my head, the checklist includes the following:

  • Is it either distinctively different or a major improvement to similar plants already on the market? (This is arguably the single most important criterion).
  • Are there plenty of flowers? How long is the flowering season (some can be a short flash in the pan)? Does it flower consistently well every year?
  • Are the blooms reasonably weather hardy?
  • If it is scented genus, are the flowers fragrant?
  • Do the blooms age gracefully and fall cleanly?
  • Is the foliage as good as the flowers?
  • Is the foliage in proportion to the flowers?
  • Where do the leaf buds open from? In the case of michelias, does it just set leaf buds on the tips (in which case it will look leggy and bare very soon) or does it set leaf buds right down the stem.
  • Does it ever defoliate in a wet spring (a feature of Magnolia laevifolia formerly known as Michelia yunnanensis)?
  • What is its performance like as a garden plant , not just grown in a container? It takes several years to make this assessment. In the longer term, will it stay a garden-friendly size? Does it take pruning, trimming or clipping well?
  • What is its international potential? How is it likely to perform in more extreme climates?

Only then do the propagation trials start. There is no point at all in selecting a plant that is difficult to propagate, where the percentage of cuttings that do not set roots is too high, where plants *whiff off* – Mark’s phrase meaning die – during production, or where very particular propagation and growing techniques are required for success – growers just do not want to put the time and expense into growing plants that are unreliable or too picky.

New releases used to be the life blood of our mailorder business. Some selections stood the test of time, others not so much. At least all the magnolias have proven to be worthwhile. It is the vireya rhododendron selections and a few of the camellias that have fallen off the Jury plant wagon. These days, we get a new plant through the initial selection and then we hand it over to our agents to manage through final trials and then getting it to market.

It is a long path to getting a new cultivar onto the market. But in the process, we get a lot of unique plant material to use in our own garden.

Magnolia doltsopa syn Michelia doltsopa – a selection released as ‘Rusty” by nurseryman, Peter Cave. Pretty flowers but showing typical floppy tendencies of this species and the original plant in our park is massive.

Tikorangi notes: narcissi, garden edgings and a happy plant breeder

The snowdrop season is all but over already. It is charming but brief. The narcissi, however, have a longer season, at least in part because we can grow a much wider range of species and hybrids. Yesterday felt like a winter’s day – the last gasp of winter, I hope – so I headed out to pick one each of the many different varieties in flower. We don’t grow many of the larger ones at all, preferring the charm of the littlies, the dwarf ones. Bigger may be better when it comes to magnolias – at least in our eyes – but daintiness wins with the narcissi. Most of these are named varieties though Mark is also raising cyclamineus seedlings to build up numbers for planting out and to get some seedling variation within them. The cyclamineus are the ones where the petal skirt sweeps back, sometimes completely reflexed, giving them a slightly startled appearance. He was intending to plant many of these down in the park but hadn’t got around to it so offered them to me for the new grass garden.

Drifting dwarf narcissi through the new grass garden. Camellia Fairy Blush hedge and Fairy Magnolia White edge the garden on both long sides. 

I have now compromised the big, bold, chunky planting in waves that is the hallmark of the new grass gardens by drifting hundreds of dainty, dwarf narcissi through them – though far enough out to escape being swamped by the large plants, for several years at least. It adds seasonal interest to an area that will not come alive again until later in spring.

Informal bark edging and bark and leaf mulch define the garden area

After much consideration as to how we wanted to complete the grass garden with regard to edging, mulch and path surfaces, we have gone for the casual, organic and local options. As soon as I started to load in the wood and leaf mulch that a local arborist delivered, I realised that the beds would need an edging to hold the mulch from spilling over. My idea of a seamless transition between bed and path was not going to work. We have pine bark to hand – left over from getting the firewood out from a fallen pine tree so I am constructing small edges out of that. It lasts for many years. The paths are still bare earth (we will probably use granulated bark on those) but as soon as I made the edgings and laid the mulch, it took on the appearance of a garden. It is a casual look but one that sits easily with us with the benefit of being low cost and, as Mark keeps saying, the use of organic materials adds carbon to the soils.

I am laying the mulch on fairly thickly – around a forefinger in depth which I measured to be about 7cm. Because it is fluffy, it will compact to less than that but if I see any weeds coming through, I can top it up.

Fairy Magnolia White – not only a beautiful flower form but a very long flowering season, beautiful velvety buds, good foliage and perfume

Mark is a quiet man, not given to blowing his own trumpet, but sometimes I hear him murmur a comment of deep contentment at a plant he has bred and named. So it was this week as we looked at the avenue of Fairy Magnolia White and Camellia Fairy Blush. “I picked White because it had a pretty flower,” he said. And it does. In a world of floppy white and cream M. doltsopa flowers, Fairy Magnolia White stands out with its beautiful star form. There were a lot of very similar sister seedlings to choose from in that cross and as a breeder, he always worries whether he picked the best one. I think he finally decided that he had indeed chosen the best which is just as well, when you think about it, because he will only ever name and release one of that cross

Camellia Fairy Blush also has a long flowering season, drops its spent flowers cleanly and clips well

Camellia Fairy Blush, planted as a hedge beneath the two avenues of Fairy Magnolia White, is also a continuing source of satisfaction and delight to us, even if it is a constant reminder of a missed commercial opportunity. It was the first camellia he ever named and sold. Back in those days, protecting a plant as our intellectual property was not even on the radar and now Fairy Blush is sold widely throughout the world and few know that it originated here and was Mark’s selection. We have even seen it branded overseas with other nursery names but we know it is ours. That is life and it is a very good camellia and continues to be a source of pride and pleasure to the breeder.

Fairy Magnolia White and a very blue spring sky