Autumn has arrived. The wind has a chill element that was absent just a few weeks ago and I have packed away the summeriest of my summer clothing. Well, bathing suits, sarong and sleeveless tops so far. The very earliest camellias are opening their first flowers.
It is not the sasanquas that bloom first. It is obscure species that we rushed to buy when NZ’s camellia specialist, Neville Haydon, announced his retirement. These are hardly spectacular but they have a simple charm on a small and detailed scale. I had to pick them because my camera skills are not up to doing them justice on the bush.
Starting with Camellia brevistyla, we have used this extensively for hedging in the caterpillar garden. Its flowering season is the shortest of all but it can be clipped to a tidy hedge around 60cm high and it becomes a mass of pretty white blossom for not much longer than about 10 days.
Mark raised all the hedging brevistyla plants from seed and one – just the one – is flowering pink. I wondered if I should be replacing it in the quest for perfect uniformity in the hedges but no. The odd imperfection is delightful in its own way and it is only for a brief period that it is visibly different to all its seedling siblings.
Next may be the tiniest of all we grow– little Camellia puniceiflora. Fully open, it measures about 2cm across and the blooms resemble tiny daisies on the bush. Though when I think of it, Camellia trichoclada is so small that even though it is planted in a prominent spot that we walk past many times a day, even we can fail to register it in bloom. it is not a camellia you grow for is floral display.
Finally, we have Camellia microphylla with its seed. The flower does not look so very different to brevistyla. Maybe ever so slightly larger and a botanical analysis with a magnifying glass will pick other differences. Because we grow them both, I can observe that the bush C. microphylla grows taller and the flowering season is longer – maybe 20 days in full flight instead of just 10. I think its foliage is a better forest green but that may just be because it is growing in shadier conditions.
These species won’t be widely available for sale in NZ but can be raised from seed with relative ease. The botanic gardens around the country usually establish collection so find the person in charge of camellias if you want to try and find seed to grow. We also get seedlings germinating beneath them all, rather too many of little brevistyla.
I have been trying to discipline myself to get back into daily writing but my scattered brain has me also trying to sort through and file the last six months of photographs. So it was I found these photos of camellias straight after clipping. The date on the photos is November 1 so obviously Lloyd was doing the clipping round in October. We only clip once a year. The timing isn’t critical – any time after flowering and after the plants have made their first flush of new growth – but if you leave it any later, you will be cutting off next season’s flower buds.
I took the second photo of the same scene yesterday to show it after five months. There is a slight blurring of the sharp edges now but overall, they have remained fairly crisp. That is why we can get away with a once a year clip. They won’t make more growth until after flowering.
I have written often about the scourge of camellia petal blight and the devastating effect on the japonicas. We have a fair number of big old japonicas dating back to Mark’s father’s days of collecting and breeding them, along with a collection of reticulatas. These days they are very messy in flowering season as the blighted buds and blooms drop prematurely and lie around looking ugly and brown. We need to do a major review plant by plant right around the garden but, even blighted and with a messy season, many of them serve a function as a green backdrop and as shelter in our windy climate. These bigger leaved varieties do not clip in the same way as the smaller foliaged species, hybrids and sasanquas.
We don’t want to clip all our camellias. Heavens above, we have quite enough to do here without making more work for ourselves. But clipping key plants gives an interesting punctuation point in the garden. They do look very sharp immediately after their annual haircut and the older the plant, the more characterful it can be made to look.