The early camellias

49 different cultivars in bloom at this early time of the season

It was a bit bleak outdoors today and I could not find the motivation to grub around in the soil so I entertained myself looking at the camellias in bloom. It is very early in the season for us and most are still in tight bud but I found 49 different ones with open flowers.

A collection of sasanquas

The early sasanquas are past their peak now but still very pretty. All the above are different named cultivars and typical, with their rather loose form and a readiness to shatter when they fall. This is helpful because it means the mass of fallen blooms break down quickly. Sasanquas used to be somewhat spurned as lacking flower form, useful mostly for hedges and sunny positions but fashions change. They are not afflicted by petal blight here which is a huge plus and these days, we find we prefer those looser flowers which have a pretty charm of their own.

Show Girl!

I didn’t add Show Girl to the sasanqua flower ring because it is so out of scale. It is a most unusual cross between a sasanqua and a reticulata and it comes into full flower early, with the sasanquas. The individual blooms are nothing special but it is lovely both on the tree or falling to a carpet of petals beneath.

The earliest flowering species

We have gathered up a reasonable collection of camellia species over the years – most of what has been available in this country. But it appears that this early in the season, you can have any colour you like as long as it is white. Or the one, minuscule pink C. puniceiflora. In the centre is C. yunnanensis already showing its unfortunate trait of the stamens turning black with age. Camellias where the stamens stay yellow are far more desirable.

Three different species or all variants of the one?

These three species came to us under the names of C. brevistyla (left), C. microphylla (right) and C. puniceiflora (top). Australian camellia expert, Bob Cherry, advanced the theory to Mark that they are all just different forms of the same species and Mark has come to the conclusion that he is probably right after several seasons of examining them with his hand lens. Species in the wild can vary considerably. In time, DNA testing will prove it either way. Of these three camellias, the form of C. microphylla that we have is easily the best as a garden plant.

Hybrids, seedlings and a few japonicas

These are a mix, some named cultivars and some seedlings. Mark has used camellias extensively for hedging and shelter around the perimeters of the garden, on our roadside and separating different areas. You can see how desirable it is for the stamens to stay yellow as they age. Generally, it is the ones with visible stamens that provide an important source of food for the birds and the bees through winter. The fully double, frilly blooms are purely ornamental. The majority of the japonicas and all the reticulatas are still just at bud stage and, alas, will be hit by camellia petal blight when they do come into bloom.

There is a whole lot more to choosing a camellia than just a pretty flower. The habit of growth, ultimate size, length of time in flower, how the blooms age and fall, colour of the foliage, reliability and more come in to play as well.  Sometimes everything else is so good that a pretty ordinary flower is still acceptable. One of the red singles above is worth its place simply because it feeds our native tui (birds) – a sight that brings us pleasure every year.

We have literally hundreds, if not into the thousands camellias all over the property. Some are named, many more are just seedlings from the breeding programme. But they are almost all just one-off plants. I can think of only four that we have planted in quantity. The three bottom ones above, we have used as hedging. From left to right, they are Mark’s first named cultivar, ‘Fairy Blush’, C. transnokoensis and C. minutiflora. All three have small leaves that respond well to clipping, good foliage colour, dense growth and masses of dainty flowers.

The flower in the top centre is C. yuhsienensis – not a hedging camellia but one we like so much that we have chosen to feature it repeatedly in two different areas of the garden. In bloom, at its best, it resembles a pretty michelia but with bullate (heavy textured) foliage.

Mark says he found the first incidence of camellia petal blight today. This is later than usual, which we put down to a drier than usual autumn. I admit I lose enthusiasm for camellias as the season progresses and blight hits badly but these early season bloomers gladden my heart on a winter’s day.

12 thoughts on “The early camellias

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I remember when the International Camellia Congress visited us. Preferences were clearly culturally determined. The Americans preferred the big, showy reticulatas (the bigger the better), the Europeans liked the japonicas, the British liked the dainty small ones that we prefer. So I guess it figures that Irish tastes might be like ours!

  1. Mark Boyd

    Hi Abbie, I’m very fond of species camellias. I thought you might be interested that recently I potted up a seedling from under c.minutiflora and planted it out later on because as it got bigger it looked different. I believe that it is a cross with c.tsaii which I also have in the garden. So it’s more like tsaii in form but with darker green leaves and new red growth and with minutiflora pink buds. It’s quite lovely. Regards Mark

      1. Abbie Jury Post author

        Potentially, left to its own devices, quite tall and open. Maybe 4 metres high over time? Looks best in its juvenile stages, in my opinion.

  2. tonytomeo

    Oh, I so miss growing them! We did not grow any that we developed. All in production were relatively common cultivars, and most came from Nuccio’s in Altadena.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I remember the Nuccios visiting here to see Mark’s parents. It must have been 1980 because I came out from the house carrying out very young firstborn baby and they just melted with delight. It was very charming.

      1. tonytomeo

        Mr. Nuccio and a friend used to drive all the way up here from Altadena in a delivery truck to deliver our orders themselves! That is more than a six hour drive! They apparently enjoyed the road trip. That was back in the late 1990s, and they were both almost elderly. They brought me my ‘Purity’ Camellia japonica, and explained that I was not the only one who appreciated that old-fashioned and simple cultivar. I was quite surprises that our clients actually purchases all that we grew. My intention was only to get 1 (!) for the arboretum, not to grow it. We got several stock plants and grew quite a few of them.

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