Tag Archives: Camellia microphylla

When near enough is not far enough

012It being autumn, ‘tis the season of sasanqua camellias here. Ever since camellia petal blight arrived to wreak havoc on the later flowering japonicas, we have been a great deal more appreciative of the sasanquas. What they lack in flower form, they make up in performance.

Gay Border on the left, Navajo to the  right

Gay Border on the left, Navajo to the right

On a grey and somewhat bleak day, I thought to entertain myself with photographing the flowers but became sidetracked onto comparisons. When we had our nursery in full production, Mark would regularly make calls as to which cultivars we would propagate and sell. Would it be Navajo or Gay Border? We chose Navajo. It is not just the flowers that are the deciding factor. The habit of growth, foliage, size, performance and ease of propagation and production were also considered although the decisions were often a little ad hoc. When it came to Sparkling Burgundy and Elfin Rose, we chose the latter because its foliage looked better.

 

Sparkling  Burgundy left, Elfin Rose right

Sparkling Burgundy left, Elfin Rose right

We felt that it is not helpful to a customer to look at a range of plants with very subtle differences. “The man on the galloping horse” test, Mark calls it – the differences should be obvious, not just subtle variations. As far as we were concerned, we were professionals and customers had a right to expect us to do some filtering in selections and to pick good performers.

When it comes to naming his own cultivars from his breeding programme, Mark is hugely more rigorous and restrained. A new release has to be significantly different, distinctive or a major improvement. He has only named four of his own deciduous magnolias so far and that is out of many, many hundreds – maybe into the thousands – of seedlings he has raised. This restraint is somewhat unusual in the world of plant breeding.

Honey Tulip top left with other named cultivars. Might we have seen this as a breakthrough in flower form?

Honey Tulip top left with other named cultivars. Might we have seen this as a breakthrough in flower form?

When we released Magnolia Honey Tulip, we received an email from an overseas self-appointed expert acknowledging that Mark was extremely – excessively, some may say – restrained about the new selections that he named and released but he should not have released a yellow magnolia. The world has enough yellow magnolias already, he loftily told us. Right-o then. We knew what he meant – there are many yellow magnolias named which all look very similar, but apparently it had not occurred to him that Mark, with his self-imposed restraint, may actually have managed to breed one that was a breakthrough and very different. We did not reply.

Anybody can raise seedlings of Black Tulip but are they then all worth naming? We think not.

Anybody can raise seedlings of Black Tulip but are they then all worth naming? We think not.

A plant breeder, by our definition, does more than just raise open pollinated seed. Not so the gentleman who visited us (again from overseas). He loved Mark’s Magnolia Black Tulip which sets seed. So he raised a whole batch of seed and spawned a whole lot of similar looking flowers which he then named and insisted on showing Mark all the photographs. None looked to be distinctive, a breakthrough or an improvement. They were just subtly different, as seedlings usually are. That sort of willy-nilly approach is not helpful to the plant and gardening world but we see it often.

That is why we have never coveted a National Collection – of anything really. The UK is very big on national collections. The parent website states:

“Plant Heritage’s (NCCPG’s) mission is to conserve, grow, propagate, document and make available the amazing resource of cultivated plants that exists in the UK….

Our main conservation vehicle is the Plant Heritage National Plant Collection® scheme where individuals or organisations undertake to document, develop and preserve a comprehensive collection of one group of plants in trust for the future.”

Camellia brevistyla left, microphylla right. They look mighty similar to us.

Camellia brevistyla left, microphylla right. They look mighty similar to us.

It is one thing to collect species – that is important for biodiversity and many are endangered in the wild. Mind you, we remain unconvinced that Camellias brevistyla and microphylla are actually different species. It looks more like seedling variation to us.

"For I have seen the national rhubarb collection"

“For I have seen the national rhubarb collection”

Also the compilation and maintenance of a wide genetic pool is important when it comes to crops like fruit and veg. “For I have seen the National Rhubarb Collection”, I tweeted when we visited Wisley. It seemed such a random and esoteric plant to collect, which is not meant in any way to deride its worth. And it was certainly a beautifully maintained collection.

But a National Collection that takes in many named hybrids? We have seen too many inferior and indistinct hybrids named to ever want to start a collection of any plant genus. We would rather have plants that are selected on individual merit in our garden.

Plant collecting is like stamp collecting, Mark explained. The search for a particular named cultivar may be challenging, rewarded by the thrill of acquisition. Whether the plant was actually worth acquiring – whether it warranted naming in the first place – becomes irrelevant.

Postscript: we don’t like to dwell too much on the travesty of our Cordyline Red Fountain and the ring-in Cordyline Burgundy though this was not, we think, motivated by misplaced breeder pride but by much baser motives indeed.

Camellia diary – the first entry April 7, 2010

Click to see all Camellia diary entries

Click on the Camellia diary logo above to see all diary entries

Crimson King - the first of the season's sasanquas to flower

Crimson King - the first of the season's sasanquas to flower

Our interest is in camellias as good garden plants, not blooms for the show bench or scientific analysis. We remain focused on the garden. The first camellias started to come into flower here about three weeks ago, at a time when we were still reluctant to admit that summer is over for another year. The fact that we can flower camellias from March to November is perhaps one reason why they have been so popular in New Zealand.

At this stage, it is only a few species and the very earliest sasanquas with flowers. Microphylla and brevistyla were the first and while their flowers are soft and easily damaged, there are so many still to open that the simplicity and brevity does not pall. Mark had to get out the hand lens to pick the difference in the flowers of these species but microphylla seems to grow a little larger as a bush. We are raising a batch of microphylla seedlings for use as a hedge in the future, though we wonder whether what we have are natural hybrids between the two – the parent plants are in close proximity.

Punicieflora is also in flower with its tiny little daisy-like pink flowers. These are understated but charming in their own way. The foliage is a bit of a pale olive green in full sun but the upright to arching growth and small leaves mean it is a good subject for clipping as a feature plant. I am gradually shaping ours to resemble a two metre high tiered cake stand.

Sinensis, the tea camellia, is also in flower but these are of little merit despite the form we have being pink. We have tried brewing our own tea and blind taste tests from the tasting panel of two felt it came creditably close to our favoured Earl Grey.

The earliest species to flower for us this season

The earliest species to flower for us this season

Amongst the sasanquas, Crimson King is the most advanced. Mahogany red perhaps a generous descriptor of the shade of red (in the Camellia Nomenclature), it being closer to pink-red but it is an open, graceful shrub that we keep pruned to 2.5 metres. Elfin Rose has her first flowers showing colour.

In the nursery with protected conditions, flowering is usually advanced by a good couple of weeks and lo and behold, we have the first flowers on Mark’s camellia Fairy Blush. This was the first camellia he named, an open pollinated lutchuensis seedling and because it wasn’t a controlled cross, Mark was rather off-hand about it. Now we feel that it is the one that got away from us and we should have protected it with a plant patent. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. We simply did not see that it was going to be such a commercial success but a pretty little scented camellia which flowers in abundance for a good six months is a recipe for good sales. All the same, it can be a little galling when an Australian nurseryman visits and tells you just how well he has done out of Fairy Blush.

Flowering this week: Camellia brevistyla

The simple charm of the species, Camellia brevistyla

The simple charm of the species, Camellia brevistyla

Little Camellia brevistyla is in flower already, even before the sasanquas are showing colour. Individual flowers only last a day or two because they consist of a single row of between five and seven soft petals which pass over quickly but as they are tiny, measuring about 2.5cm across, they disintegrate quickly and there are plenty coming on. And the pristine white contrasts well with the dark green, small leaves. Brevistyla is a great candidate for clipping but it is also one of the best camellia options we have seen as a replacement for buxus hedging. It suckers and layers a bit which helps to make a dense hedge and it sets abundant seed so if you can find somebody with one plant, you could gather their seed (and probably seedlings) and raise your own hedge at no cost. While you will get some variations amongst the seedlings, these will be minor and barring the occasional freak (possible but unlikely), they won’t look different to the parent. While it is recorded as growing relatively tall in the wild in its native habitat of Taiwan and parts of mainland China, the plant we have in the garden hasn’t got much over a metre in a decade.

We have Camellia microphylla as well which has to be closely related to brevistyla and have raised microphylla seed as our replacements in reserve, should our buxus hedges become blighted. It grows a little taller than brevistyla but it wasn’t until Mark got out with a magnifying glass and analysed the subtle variations in the stigma length that he worked out the difference between the two species. Both make delightful autumn pictures with simple white flowers and dark foliage.