Of Camellias and Drug Raids

By ABBIE JURY

I recall writing several weeks ago that the camellias were looking great and making a rash statement along the lines of petal blight be damned. I still thought camellias were a great plant. As the season has progressed, I have had to review that position.

An unusually warm and calm spring has rewarded us with a splendid display of magnolias, but alas the petal blight has been dreadful. I had thought that as it is a fungal problem, dry conditions may have reduced its impact this year. No. And the lack of wind has meant that the affected flowers have stayed resolutely attached to the bushes.

In the face of this brown scourge, I have been changing not only my perception of camellias but also my management of the plants in the garden. Until very recent times, I had seen camellias as a rewardingly easy plant with prolonged flowering, needing next to no care. Modern breeding has resulted in plants that are self grooming – that is they drop the spent blooms. They still do that – unless the spent blooms are blighted.

I still think camellias are lovely plants, but I no longer see them as a plant which has an exceptionally long flowering season stretching into months. Now they have to hold their own against many other different plants which have a peak flowering of a few weeks only. I should, in fairness to the genus, note that the easy care nature of most camellias remains – they don’t need spraying, most keep good foliage and they don’t need skilled pruning. Most are wind tolerant and they are excellent hedging plants.

It is as featured plants in the garden that I am feeling the need to change my management techniques. With smaller plants I am now trying to groom them – to remove spent blooms. And with that, I see the future of these smaller plants as clipped or topiaried character plants where the form and shape is more important than the flowers. Camellias lend themselves to clipping as they will usually reshoot from bare wood. Clipping now, as they start to spring into new growth encourages them to be bushier and a follow-up in three months time will remove long straggly shoots.

Petal blight is particularly devastating on the larger flowered, pale varieties where the flowers tend to be long lived. Most of the miniature flowered types have masses more flowers and they only last a few days each. So as one lot succumbs to the pale brown blight, more are opening. A relatively obscure species, minutiflora, is still earning its keep. We have an Australian nurseryman staying at the moment and he tells me that minutiflora is shaping up to be one of his biggest sellers. It has tiny dark leaves with a red tinge, masses of pink buds opening to tiny white flowers like fairy cups and a natural growth habit of arching to pendulous form. We have not found it as easy to propagate as our Australian colleague, but it is another plant that is worth buying if you see it offered anywhere. It is a little gem, even if you hate camellias.

Mark thinks that the big reticulates have continuing merit despite petal blight. These are the camellias with the very largest flowers – often the size of a bread and butter plate. Reticulatas don’t flower as long as the more common japonica types but they are very showy in bloom. We are finding that they still look good despite petal blight. Part of this is that the majority of them are in red tones so the damaged blooms are less unsightly, but also their flowers tend to be very full and heavy and the plant will still shed its blooms. The only problem with the retics is availability. Most have to be grafted (they don’t grow on their own roots) and there are very few nurseries still grafting camellias.

Aside from thinking about camellias, we have been a bit distracted from gardening this week. In fact it has been a bit of a rugged week, culminating in the death of one of our dearly loved dogs on the road. The lead-up to that was not without its dramas and points of interest, although we could have done without it. A police raid on tenants in a house we own across the road yielded up all manner of interesting goodies. Because the production of methamphetamines was involved, the house in question had to be sealed and kept under police guard while awaiting the expert to remove certain materials and equipment. Standing around guarding a house in the country for 30 hours or so is pretty dull work, I assume, so the police were happy to talk to the landlords to pass the time of day. The details of manufacture of first stage methamphetamines was all new information to us but not of much relevance to a gardening column. But we were also riveted by learning about cutting grown cannabis in grow units indoors.

Cannabis is a fast growing annual and traditionally grown to maturity over a summer season (rather like giant basil, really). But apparently the new breed of cannabis criminals, who might be better to spend their time fruitfully in the vegetable garden, have learned how to take cuttings from a mother plant and then force growth under heat lamps to get a crop through in a mere ten weeks, irrespective of the season. It also solves the problem of male and female plants. Males are undesirable (hah!) and by growing cuttings from a selected mother plant, only female plants are produced. There is an interesting horticultural basis to this new breed of cannabis grower and no doubt, out there somewhere is a cannabis breeder who is working on selecting ever better and more reliable clones for vegetative propagation. We just wish that these low-life tenants had inveigled their way into a house owned by somebody other than ourselves.

But we did have a laugh at an odd little piece of news in our local paper about a new reality show where a small mob of sheep were to be filmed 24/7. Viewers (wait for this) get to vote a different sheep off the show every week. We thought that maybe somebody could start a reality show filming a selection of plants over a period of time so that viewers can tune in and vote their least favourite plant off the show each week. Sounds a bit like watching paint dry to us.

Abbie and Mark Jury have a garden and nursery at Otaraoa Rd, Tikorangi.