The scourge of camellia petal blight continues unabated. This was one disease we could have done without in this country and the sad thing is that when it was first discovered in Wellington, it was limited to two or three locations. Had all the infected plants been incinerated immediately, this nasty fungal ailment may have been eradicated. So if you have been looking at your camellias, particularly the most common japonica types (which takes in most of the lovely formals and the really showy blooms), and thinking that their display ain’t what it used to be, you are right.
We have always had botrytis in this country which can turn blooms to a dark mush but is generally not devastating. Modern camellias have been bred to be self grooming – in other words they drop spent flowers rather than holding them onto the bush and giving that unattractive look of some of the very old varieties still around.The trouble with camellia petal blight is that it seems to glue the flower to the plant so it defeats the self grooming process.
If you are wondering whether you have camellia petal blight, I would be very surprised to hear that you haven’t. It is unstoppable and untreatable. Well, you can treat your plants but you will just get reinfected. Being a fungus, the blight is spread from spore and I recall reading of it being tracked 5km on the wind. So if anybody has a camellia bush within a 5km radius of you, you are in trouble. If you go out and look at your camellias, you will likely find beautiful blooms with a nasty brown stain starting across some of the petals. Within about 24 hours, that bloom will have turned to a light brown colour. If you pull off the flower, turn it over and pull off the calyx on the back (that is the little green hat that holds all the petals together in the middle), you will find the tell-tale ring of white powdery web. That is camellia petal blight. If it is blacky-grey and the spoiled bloom is a darker brown, it is botrytis.
Camellias used to be second only to roses for the volume sold in this country. The bottom has pretty much fallen out of the market now and the volume sold is a fraction of what it used to be. I married in to a leading camellia family. Les Jury, Mark’s uncle, is still remembered internationally, long after his death nearly 30 years ago, for his huge contribution to camellias including such classics as Jury’s Yellow, Anticipation, Ballet Queen, Elegant Beauty and so many more. In his day, Felix Jury was far better known for his beautiful camellias than his magnolias – Waterlily, Dreamboat, Mimosa Jury, Rose Bouquet, Itty Bit and many others. Mark carried the mantle, encouraged by both his uncle and his father, until the day he heard that petal blight was in this country. He ceased all work on breeding camellias immediately and it is only now, well over a decade later, that he is starting to see directions he can take.
All this is such a shame because the camellia remains an enormously useful plant. It is just that we have traditionally seen it primarily as a plant to grow for its flowers. With the huge hit on its flower power, we are tending to ignore the other possibilities and positive aspects.
- Camellias are unrivalled as a source of nectar for our tui and bellbirds through the winter. Singles and semi doubles with visible stamens will bring the birds to your garden.
- Camellias remain fantastic hedging. They will sprout again from bare wood and most will tolerate dreaded salt winds. They only need trimming twice a year for a formal hedge and almost never for an informal look or windbreak. For our money, they remain one of the very best hedging options.
- Autumn flowering sasanqua camellias do not get hit by petal blight. Not at all, that we have ever seen or heard.
- Red flowered camellias still get petal blight but it doesn’t show up anywhere near as badly. The showiest displays we have had this winter have mostly been from red flowered varieties.
- Reticulata camellias are commonly in shades of red and have such big flowers that they have sufficient weight to drop cleanly. They continue to put on a splendid display.
- The little miniatures and single flowered types have many more buds and flowers and, by their very nature, each bloom only lasts a few days so they are usually over before petal blight gets to be unsightly.
- Camellias are an unsung hero for topiary and clipping. If you get away from the few with really grungy colour and a tendency to turn murky yellow, most camellias have terrific foliage.
Clipping and shaping has never featured large in this country. While we may say that this is because we prefer a more natural look, gardening by its very character is an exercise in controlling and manipulating nature. It is more likely that we lack the labour force to clip extensively and we lack the cultural context to create entire scenes from clipped plants in the traditions of England, Italy, France, China and Japan. While yew and buxus are common clipping candidates overseas, the ubiquitous camellias grow so very well here that they give us an unexpected option. They are evergreen and not generally fussy. They sprout from bare wood so you can cut them back hard and they are very forgiving if you get the cuts in the wrong place. Clipping encourages bushier growth. Many people have large, mature specimens in their gardens so there is an abundance of raw material out there. The flowers then become a bonus not the prime reason for growing the plant. You will still get lovely flowers, just not as many as you used to and they won’t last as long.
If you have gone off your camellias, try getting out there and clipping before you cut them out. Balls, pillars, obelisks, clouds, free form shapes – there are lots of options if peacocks, animals and other birds do not appeal. A camellia bush can continue to justify its place in the garden if you make it work at levels other than just being a pretty flowering shrub.