The autumn camellias

Camellia sasanqua Crimson King in prime position

When Mark returned home to Tikorangi in 1980 bringing me and our first baby bump, the name Jury was synonymous with camellias. These days Jury = magnolias, but not back then. There is a whole chapter in the family history that is headed ‘Camellias’ but it is largely in the past now. Changing fashion, changing focus and the dreaded camellia petal blight has seen to that.

But every autumn, as the sasanquas come into flower we both derive huge delight, particularly from the Camellia Crimson King by the old mill wheel, which is just out from our back door beside the driveway. It is a picture of grace and charm.

Crimson King rests more on its merits of form and position than the beauty of individual blooms

Sasanquas are the unsung heroes of the camellia family, seen mostly as hedging plants, so utility rather than glorious. But if they are allowed to mature as specimens and gently shaped down the years, they stand on their own merits. Mark declared yesterday that it is the autumn flowering camellias that interest him now, not the late winter and spring varieties. For these autumn ones do not get petal blight whereas the later varieties are now a mere shadow of their former selves, faced by the extreme ravages wrought upon their blooms by blight. Our camellia trip to China in 2016 had us concluding that our mild, humid climate with high rainfall means that we suffer worse from petal blight in Taranaki than pretty much anywhere else, really. It is nowhere near as bad in dry climates.

The history of camellias from the middle of last century onwards has some parallels to the history of tulips – all about show and showy blooms. So it was predicated on the quest for the new – extending the boundaries of flower form, size and colour, prizing breakthroughs even when the results were more novelty than meritorious. Camellia societies had enormous flower shows where the staging of individual show blooms was the focus. It didn’t have much, if anything, to do with garden performance let alone longevity as garden plants. Sasanquas didn’t fit this show bench mould. They flowered too early in the season, individual blooms are often quite small, lacking rigid, defined form and falling apart when picked.

But fashions and conditions change and these days it is the softer look of the Japanese camellia family member, the sasanquas, that makes us stop and take notice more than the later flowering japonicas and hybrids on which the earlier family reputation was forged. The light airiness and grace of the sasanquas fits our style of gardening far better than the solid, chunkiness of many of the later varieties and the autumn flowers serve as another marker of the change of season.

The earliest of the sasanquas here – all named varieties

I did a walk around to see how many different blooms I could pick but it is still a little early in the season and some have yet to open. Some plants we leave entirely to their own devices, some we will clean up the canopy from time to time -to take out dead wood and create an umbrella effect, two we clip tightly once a year to a cloud pruned form. With their small leaves, the sasanquas clip well. It just pays to do it soon after they have made their new growth after flowering. Leave it until late spring and you will be clipping off all the flower buds set for next autumn.

Camellia Mine No Yuki

It takes a few decades of growth to get sufficient size to shape as we shape ‘Elfin Rose’ and ‘Mine No Yuki’ but these specimens now function as distinctive shapes within the garden all year round, rather than melding into the background as most camellias do when not in bloom.

8 thoughts on “The autumn camellias

  1. tonytomeo

    Camellias, primarily Camellia japonica, was our fourth major crop years ago; but I think it is our second major crop now, after rhododendrons. The blight requires that all fallen blossoms get raked and disposed of. They are messy anyway. I notice that camellias in landscapes that are not so crowded with others are not so troubled by it. The blight does not proliferate here as badly as it does in some areas.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      A dry climate with lower humidity makes a huge difference. We saw petal blight in China (cold but dry) and it wasn’t a major issue. Nor did it seem too bad in southern Europe. Here, it is so bad that it has almost wiped out the display of japonicas, hybrids and retics. It is the small flowered species and sasanquas that make our display now. Climatic conditions make a huge difference.

      1. tonytomeo

        Yes, that is why they do so well in San Jose. The old ‘big’ camellia grower who gave us some of our stock plants is in Pasadena, which is much better than our climate.

  2. Tim Dutton

    After reading this article I reviewed how our sasanquas are doing at the moment and have come to the conclusion that they have never flowered more prolifically than they are doing at the moment. The two that have been in for more than 20 years are smothered in flowers to an extent they have never been before. Is it the hot dry spring and early summer followed by a wetter than average and warmer summer and early autumn that has caused this? Certainly this particular combination of seasonal weather has never occurred for us before in this garden.

    We’ve recently planted ‘Mine-no-yuki’ and have ‘Crimson King’ still in a pot waiting to go in the ground, in an area I have been clearing for a new bit of the garden. Both are flowering well too. Nice to see photos of how they could look after we have long gone, thank you.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I can’t comment on the weather conditions, Tim, because we had the opposite – a very wet miserable spring and an unusually hot, dry and extended summer and ours are flowering well. Not a fan of Mine No Yuki, I am sorry to tell you. It looks fantastic for about five days and then we get a heavy rain and the effect is all sludge brown and white for the rest of the season!

  3. sarahnorling2014

    The japonica petal blight is bad here in Wellington. It feels like I spend about half the year clearing up the messy brown sludge of the flowers dropping off both ours and our neighbours’ trees.. grr. Such a shame as the flowers are beautiful, briefly. I only ever recommend sasanquas to clients now.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      If you get to grips with some of the species and the varieties with small leaves and single of semi double blooms, you could extend the range beyond the sasanquas. But yes, I know what you mean about the japonicas.

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