My favourite white camellias

Left to right: C. microphylla,  sasanqua Silver Dollar, transnokoensis, drupifera, gauchowensis, yuhsienensis

Left to right: C. microphylla, sasanqua Silver Dollar, transnokoensis, drupifera, gauchowensis, yuhsienensis

When you think about it, it is likely that at least two thirds of camellias are pink with the remaining third shared by red and white. In this country, we have a passion for white flowers. Indeed it is seen as a mark of sophistication in some quarters to create a garden with only white flowered plants (Sissinghurst’s famed white garden meets new-age minimalism in the far flung colony), perhaps alleviated by the occasional addition of one extra colour – touches of red maybe, or black for the ultra sophisticates.

That love affair with white extends to camellias, especially where hedges are concerned. I would guess there are many more white camellia hedges than pink or red ones. While I don’t put the whites on a pedestal above their coloured cousins, there is a charm in pristine, white flowers – though not if they then turn to sludge brown and stay on the bush.

I mentioned Camellia gauchowensis last week. After many weeks, it is still looking splendid and has plenty of flower buds yet to open. We think this is a sasanqua – the Japanese camellias which start flowering in autumn. Many sasanquas have a sort of mossy, earthy scent which is peculiar to this family and C. gauchowensis certainly has it. Some optimists on overseas websites refer to its wonderful fragrance but it is just that typical wet moss sasanqua smell.

The sasanquas bring us the greatest range of good performing pure whites. Pretty much everybody knows Setsugekka with its medium to large semi double flowers and golden stamens. In fact it is not dissimilar to C. gauchowensis, or Weeping Maiden for that matter. There is a whole string of them that are similar, varying more in habit of growth than in flower. C. gauchowensis is probably my favourite only because that is the one I have planted in a prominent spot where I see it frequently.

Early Pearly, one of the loveliest white sasanquas of them all

Early Pearly, one of the loveliest white sasanquas of them all

For beauty of white bloom in the sasanquas, it is hard to go past Early Pearly. It has what is described as a formal flower (a full set of petals with no visible stamens, held in tidy, overlaying circles). If I were to go for a white sasanqua hedge, I would probably pick Early Pearly but it is a matter of taste (and availability). It is the only white sasanqua I know with that flower form.

Away from the sasanquas, there are a fairly large number of species with small, white, single or semi double flowers. Tsaii is well known, though not my favourite. I think as it gets ever larger, it can be a little sparse in the foliage department. I have commented before about our choice of C. microphylla as both hedging and specimen plant. It has all but finished flowering for the season. We are also fans of C. transnokoensis (colloquially abbreviated to ‘transnok’) which has good dark foliage and masses of tiny white single flowers. In fact we are so keen on it that we have just planted two lengths of hedging and it is starting to open its flowers now. We are impressed by the somewhat obscure C. drupifera with its compact habit, dark foliage and plenty of mid-sized pure white flowers.

These single and semi double types have two big advantages. Many feed the birds in winter because the pollen and nectar are readily available in the visible stamens. They also fall and disintegrate quickly, so there is no sludge of spent blooms below. Most have blooms which are pretty short lived but to compensate for that, they set masses of flower buds so there are fresh flowers opening as the spent ones fall.

Whites are far more problematic in the japonica and hybrid camellias. These types tend to have flowers with much more substance – stiffer, more solid. This is where the show blooms come from and there is a wider range of flower form and blooms are often much larger. They also hang on to the bush for longer and the problem with white and pale blooms is that they show all weather damage and then hang about for longer in a brown and white state on the bush.

This one is Superstar. We can't pick it from Lily Pons

This one is Superstar. We can’t pick it from Lily Pons

The only ones I can honestly recommend in these larger flowered, mid season blooming types are Lily Pons or its twin sister, Superstar. We have never been able to pick the difference between the two. They are more semi doubles with fluted petals and golden stamens, showing better weather tolerance and more graceful ageing than other large whites of this type. We have never found a top performing, formal white japonica which doesn’t show every blemish.

In the end, it will come down to availability these days. The range of camellias offered for sale in this country has contracted dramatically. You may have to settle for what you can find, but take heart. There is a fairly high degree of flexibility possible because many actually look similar. In the end, choose on overall performance as a garden plant, not on the beauty of a single bloom.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.