Sad thoughts on camellias

We used to take perfection in camellia blooms for granted

Why did this camellia make me so sad that I picked it to photograph it? It is just a pretty, formal japonica-type that is an unnamed seedling, known here as ‘Mimosa’s sister’ because it is of the same breeding that produced the beautiful pink formal that Felix Jury liked so much he named it for his wife, Mimosa Jury. The answer is because it is a rare sight, now – a perfect, undamaged bloom.

When we set up the nursery in the early 1980s, rhododendrons and camellias were our main lines. The former have fallen from favour these days, the latter have been decimated by camellia petal blight. Mark’s dad, Felix, loved the formal flower shape so much that most he named were of this form – ‘Waterlily’, ‘Dreamboat’, ‘Softly’, ‘Julie Felix’ and ‘Mimosa Jury’. The first two are international classics now and ‘Mimosa Jury’ deserves to be there, too.

These days, this is a more common sight – blooms showing various stages of unsightly damage

We still have many camellias in our garden, both of Jury breeding and named cultivars from around the world. Right now should be peak display for the japonicas, hybrids and reticulatas but camellia petal blight has dealt a death blow to that. It is maybe two decades since we have had a good early spring display and we will never see it again from that grouping of mass bloomers. It really is a bit sad to lose a major family of flowers. We keep the plants we want for shelter, overhead cover and as background filler plants but now without the pleasure of a clean floral display.

Sadly, even the interesting tropical yellow species like Camellia nitidissima suffer from petal blight in our conditions 

More of botanical interest than rewarding garden plant – Camellia nitidissima again

Camellia petal blight is a problem throughout much of the world. Australia hasn’t got it and long may their border control keep it out. As I commented after attending the International Camellia Congress in China,  it is not as devastating in other areas as ours. It is nowhere near as bad in dry climates. But here, with our generally mild climate, high rainfall and high humidity all year round, it is as bad as it can be. I doubt that we will plant another japonica or reticulata in our gardening lifetime. Were we still selling plants, we would have contracted our range to sasanquas, the garden-worthy species and some of the tiny flowered cultivars that don’t show a problem with petal blight because each individual flower only lasts a few days.

There is work going on to try and breed for blight-resistant choices but they are limited to tiny flowered cultivars as far as I have seen. I do not think we will ever see the japonicas and reticulatas free of blight. The progress on trying to find a treatment for petal blight is painfully slow and if it comes about, it may be suitable for treating individual specimen plants but not for the mass plantings that New Zealand went for in the past.

At the time it was discovered, it was only in four places in Wellington and could have been eradicated but it wasn’t seen a priority, either high or low. So it spread – everywhere. The theory back then was that it may have come in on a corsage being worn by an airline passenger from the west coast of USA where it was already well established. From such minor events can a major change be brought about.

Most of our camellias look more like this now – hanging on to blighted blooms

I just feel a bit sad that I won’t see the mass display of beautiful blooms that we took for granted for so long. If you live in a drier climate, they are probably still a viable option. Look around and see if the garden plants in your area are putting on a clean display and dropping their spent blooms (blighted blooms usually stay hanging on the bush). If, like here, there are no mass displays of blooms any longer, I would be looking at planting other options than the larger flowered camellia types. When you come from the camellia family of Jury, that is bleak advice.

Ever the Pollyanna, I should finish on a positive note. Fortunately there are plenty of other beautiful flowering plants we can choose from for this time of year. Look at the range of colours Mark is getting to in his breeding work on garden-friendly michelia shrubs. Most of these are also blessed with good fragrance which is not common in camellias.

16 thoughts on “Sad thoughts on camellias

  1. sarahnorling2014

    When I lived in Sydney years ago, I remember Waterlily as one of the most exquisitely beautiful of all camellias, and you see it planted extensively. As part of my Hort studies, I wrote a report on Eryldene, the home of Prof. E.G. Waterhouse, with its wonderful camellia garden. Bit of a shock, upon moving back here to a garden full of camellias, having to spend winter Sundays scooping piles of slimy brown flowers into rubbish bags. Sad indeed. As a side note, interesting that the petal blight doesn’t seem to weaken the plants – they flower prolifically for months on end every year, blight and all!

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      You are right – blight only affects the flowers. Though, sadly, ours no longer flower prolifically. Quite the opposite for the japonica. Though the retics keep flowering in abundance and, being mostly red, don’t look as bad as the pales and whites.

  2. Pamela Barraclough

    Does anyone know where Camellia White Hibiscus is available, and if it is susceptible to blight? Pam

  3. dinahmow

    I followed that link back to your earlier post;I was wondering about the date…I returned to NZ in 1979, flying in from Hawaii, where all passengers were presented with an orchid bloom on boarding. A lovely gesture, but all blooms had to be surrendered before landing in NZ.So I’m presuming that corsage that may have brought in the blight was much earlier.
    Plant and soil pests can be very difficult to stop, but bio-guards are vital, aren’t they?

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      No it was later than that -mid nineties. Found at Wellington Botanic Gardens and somewhere in the Hutt. The talk around then, in my memory, was more around a diplomatic mission slipping through. But this is pure gossip.

  4. Tim Dutton

    It is very sad Abbie. I think ‘Mimosa Jury’ is my favourite out of all our Camellias and for us is one of the last to come into flower (only ‘Dahlonega’ is later, not really getting going until October). Hundreds of buds on it at the moment and only a few have opened so far, but I’ve just plucked two of the first off as they had brown edges. We have a large ‘Donation’ beside the driveway that is looking the best it has for many years because I pluck the blighted flowers off it every day if they are showing any signs of brown. This year many of its flowers have got to full size without any hint of blight: is it because I’ve been so diligent I wonder? Anyway, it has been nice to see such a good display for a change, even if it is a lot of work.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      There is no doubt that grooming a plant makes it look a gazillion times better. I have a few key plants I will groom but we have hundreds of them all up so cannot do special ones.

  5. Elaine Bolitho

    No wonder you are feeling sad with that blighted effect on your beautiful plants. I guess that’s why we have brown flowers staying on a lot of our camellias too. I had naively just thought that they had a stronger hold on the tree than others! On a brighter note we bought a Dreamboat three years ago, and while it is slow growing it has some lovely flowers at present (no brown ones! – I hadn’t realised it was a Jury magnolia until you mentioned it in this post.

  6. Prue Wisheart

    If I compost the blighted flowers would it be OK to use in places other than around camellias? Seems a waste to take all that organic matter to the tip…..

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I would think so. The advice to remove all affected blooms and put them in the rubbish is, I think, based on the idea that you can stop petal blight getting worse (you can’t ever eliminate it) for people who only have a very few plants. If you have lots of plants, or if any of your neighbours within a few km radius have lots, then your efforts are not going to have any noticeable effect on the incidence of blight. I figure I am cleaning up spent blooms for aesthetic reasons, mostly. It just looks better.

  7. Tim Dutton

    That’s good to know: I’ve been bagging up many kgs of flowers on an almost daily basis, that I would otherwise have put in the compost. I can stops bagging them now.
    On a brighter note, last year we planted a small hedge of Mark’s Camellia ‘Fairy Blush’ outside our dining room window and look out on it at breakfast every day. It has flowered spectacularly well for weeks, with many flowers still being produced, and drops older flowers rapidly so never looks a mess. We’ve found two unexpected bonuses as well. A sprig with many flower buds that broke in the wind came indoors into a vase to allow the flowers to open and we noticed a most enticing and unexpected scent coming from it once indoors. I can’t detect the scent out in the garden though. The second big bonus is that many mornings a female bellbird has been furiously feeding from the flowers on the hedge!

  8. tonytomeo

    Even in our chaparral climates, it is a problem. We happen to grow them in the rainiest climate around (on the ‘outside’ coastal exposure of the Santa Cruz Mountains), so fallen bloom must be raked from under the big stock plants. Productions plants are significantly cleaner than the stock plants when they leave, but I know they are not as clean as they look. All climates are drier farther inland, so bloom would be more reliable. The main problem is the lack of horticulturists who care to maintain the camellia plants. So-called ‘gardeners’ shear them like privets, so they do not get a chance to bloom.

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