Tag Archives: camellia petal blight

Camellia stars

China (4)

Camellia heartland in Dali with cultural performances. The dancing girls are holding oversized camellias


It is looking as if this is to be the year of the camellia for us. We went to China in February, to join the International Camellia Society’s biennial congress and it has been non-stop camellias since.

Camellia High Fragrance  (photo by Tony Barnes)

Camellia High Fragrance (photo by Tony Barnes)

While the congress in Dali was wall to wall reticulatas (more on these in my August NZ Gardener column), one New Zealand cultivar has made inroads to the heady world of Chinese camellias where they otherwise show complete loyalty to their own. The late Jim Findlay from Whangarei spent many years working on scented camellias and it would not be exaggerating to say that his ‘High Fragrance’ is a sensation in China – regarded with reverence, even. It is a shame Jim is not still around to enjoy the accolades and honour from the home of camellias.

Dali prides itself on being camellia heartland.  Even aside from the colourful displays and ceremonies associated with hosting what was seen as a highly prestigious congress, it was clear that the camellia is a cultural icon unmatched by anything I can think of in New Zealand, except perhaps rugby. It was celebrated in song, dance, art, branding, decoration and, above all else, in plants by the thousand, nay, tens of thousands, grown in containers and displayed everywhere.

Pink form of C. sinensis

Pink form of C. sinensis

Travelling across hemispheres, we arrived home in early March to find our earliest camellias already in bloom. C. sinensis is the proper tea camellia and one form we have has the daintiest and earliest little pink blooms. It is, of course, primarily grown for its young foliage which we sometimes harvest for the freshest green tea experience possible. Lightly crushing the leaves and leaving them to ferment overnight in a warm place gives a stronger flavour, reminiscent even of our favoured Earl Grey. Inspired by our Chinese experience, I am determined to be more organised and consistent in harvesting the foliage in spring this year though we are not going to reach self sufficiency.

Camellia brevistyla

Camellia brevistyla

The other very early bloomer for us is Camellia brevistyla, with its dainty white flowers. It is a bit ephemeral with its flowering season (the extremely similar C. microphylla lasts longer) but its small leafed, compact form lends it to clipping so we are happy to let it keep its little space in the garden.
sasanqua camellias (2)

Sasanqua camellias in autumn

By mid May and into June, it is the sasanqua camellias that take centre stage as the dominant flowering shrubs in the garden. Most of the sasanqua species originated in Japan and in the camellia heydays through to the early 1990s, they were often seen as the utility relative – good for hedging and sun tolerant but lacking the substance and flower form that were prized in the japonicas and hybrids. Fashions change with time and these days I really like the softer flower form and the smaller foliage which is usually a good dark green colour and ideal for clipping and shaping. Also, the early bloomers of the season lift the spirits on grey days of late autumn going into winter.

Camellia petal blight

Camellia petal blight

The other huge bonus of the sasanquas  is that they do not get petal blight which has cut the display of later flowering types. The ravages of petal blight (technically Ciborinia camelliae) have been a huge disappointment to us and pretty much stopped the inter-generational Jury camellia breeding programme in mid stride. It was particularly interesting in China to see blight and discuss it with professionals from other countries. Australia is still free from it (a good argument for tight border control), but Asia, Europe and the USA are all afflicted.

I spoke to an Italian researcher who gave hope. They have found a biological cure (another fungus, in fact) which is working well in laboratory conditions but not yet in the field (or garden). Maybe over time, there is light at the end of the blighted tunnel. In the meantime, what struck us was that while we saw it through the areas of China we visited and discussed it with Europeans, it was nowhere near as bad as we get here at home. Mark ruefully commented that maybe we have the worst blight in the world. While our coastal Taranaki winters are mild and we get bright sun, we also get a lot of rain and high humidity – optimum conditions for anything fungal, really. China was dry. Maybe gardeners in dry parts of New Zealand like Hawkes Bay and Central Otago are correspondingly less affected?

Camellias continue to play a valued role in our garden but the nature of that role has changed in response to  wretched blight.

IMG_2845First published in the June issue of NZ Gardener and reprinted here with their permission. 
China (3)

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Garden lore: July 20, 2015 Petal blight, white camellia hedges and winter pruning

“One has a lot, an endless lot, to learn when one sets out to be a gardener.”

Vita Sackville-West, A Joy of Gardening (1958)

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Petal blight

Petal blight

After writing about Winter Whites last week, referencing the ubiquitous white camellia hedges, of course I noticed this hedge on my way to town. My eye was drawn to the composition of brown and white flowers. It is a japonica camellia, though which one I am not sure. Closer examination revealed a bad case of petal blight, even this early in the season. There are two main giveaway signs. The first is the brown flowers hanging on to the bush. Most modern camellias are what is called self-grooming. They are bred to drop their spent blooms but those affected by petal blight hang on. The blighters. The second sign is shown by turning over a brown bloom and removing the calyx that holds the petals together. There is the tell-tale white ring of death – fungal spores. There is no remedy. You either live with it or you remove the plants.
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I have never been a fan of japonica camellias for hedging. The foliage can go a bit yellow in full sun and both leaves and blooms are too big. Smaller leafed camellias, seen in the sasanquas, some of the species and the hybrids look much better. Miniature single flowers usually fall cleanly and disintegrate quickly, avoiding the sludgy brown effect below.

Camellia transnokoensis

Camellia transnokoensis

While our C. transnokoensis hedge needs to thicken up yet, we are charmed by its floral display. The sasanqua ‘Silver Dollar’ is also an excellent hedging choice. While the small flowers are nothing special viewed close-up, it is one of the first sasanquas to bloom for us and one of the last so it has exceptionally long season allied to compact growth and small leaves which are a good, dark green.

Camellia sasanqua Silver Dollar - an excellent hedging option

Camellia sasanqua Silver Dollar – an excellent hedging option 

While some claim that sasanquas can get petal blight, we haven’t seen it on our plants. And although the single flowered species and hybrids are not necessarily resistant, most set large numbers of flowers but each bloom only lasts a few days so they fall before blight takes hold.

On another topic, winter is pruning time. I did the wisterias on Friday. This is one plant family I recommend removing totally if you are not willing to prune them. They have dangerous proclivities. Most of the roses are done and I have started on the hydrangeas. Those in colder climates may be better to wait another month before tackling the last two because pruning encourages new growth which is vulnerable to frosts. The pruning guides I did several years ago as part of my Outdoor Classroom series give step by step instructions if you are not sure where to start – wisteria, hydrangeas, roses.

A blight upon your camellias

I married in to a camellia family. Long before the Jury name ever became associated with magnolias, it was known both in New Zealand and overseas for camellias. That is because there were two brothers working independently on camellias in the previous generation.

Les Jury (known here as Uncle Les, for obvious reasons) was the better known and some of his cultivars are classics in the camellia world – Anticipation, Debbie and Jury’s Yellow to name just three. Not far behind was Felix Jury who created Water Lily, Dream Boat, Rose Bouquet and many others.

Encouraged by his father and his uncle, my Mark was following suit. They were heady days and camellias ranked second only to roses in volume of plant sales in New Zealand. Both Mark and I remember the Day of Doom. Mark received an unannounced visit from senior members of the local Camellia Society bringing him the bad news that camellia petal blight had been found in Wellington. It took quite a while for the implications to sink in for me but Mark knew instantly what it meant and that was the day he stopped camellia breeding. Only now, more than twenty years down the track, is he starting to return to it as the picture has become clearer.

From these slightly blemished blooms...

From these slightly blemished blooms…

Camellia petal blight is endemic to China and Japan and has long been a problem on the west coast of the USA. More recently, it has struck the UK and Europe though apparently Australia is still free from it. A plant can’t carry it. It is transmitted on the flower or in the soil. Even back when it was first found in this country, standard practice was to ensure that all plants being shipped in or out of New Zealand were stripped of all flower buds and had their roots washed clean. It is quite possible that it entered this country inadvertently in a corsage somebody failed to discard safely or some similar incident. The discovery of infected blooms in Wellington Botanic Gardens and in two locations in the Hutt (if my memory serves me right) was hardly painted apple moth or Queensland fruit fly territory but its impact has certainly been very disappointing.

... to this in two short days

… to this in two short days

It is a fungus – Ciborinia camelliae, to be precise and the spore are dispersed through the air. The problem in this country is that the camellia is so ubiquitous and the distances from host plant to next potential host so short that the disease spread rapidly. For the same reason, you can’t eradicate it because you will just get reinfected. So we have learned to live with it.

We have always had botrytis which turns blooms dark brown but petal blight is much more rampant. What may be light brown speck on a bloom one day can show as riddled as the pox the following day and pale mush the day after. And it usually hangs on the plant, which is the worst aspect of all because blighted blooms look awful. A lot of modern breeding has been to get camellias that are self grooming – in other words they fall when finished. But not the blighted blooms.

If you want to check that you have it, flip a bloom over and peel off the calyx which holds the petals together in the centre. If it has a telltale white powdery ring inside the calyx, that is petal blight. If it is greyish black, it is botrytis.

The white ring of death - camellia petal blight

The white ring of death – camellia petal blight

Petal blight does not weaken the plant. It merely cuts the floral display. You won’t get as many blooms, though given camellias’ propensity for massive bud set, they will still out flower most other shrubs. You will probably have to do more of a clean up, maybe shake the bush as you pass and rake up the debris to keep them looking attractive. It is still a lot less than many other plants require.

Reticulata camellias (the ones with the huge blooms the size of lunch plates) tend to drop their blighted blooms because they are so heavy. And many are red which doesn’t show the brown blemishes as badly. But reticulatas are very hard to find for sale these days. Despite what some information on the internet says, we have never found petal blight on our sasanqua camelliaseither, and that is not for want of looking. As far as we are concerned they are clean.

The smaller flowered camellias with masses of shortlived blooms in succession are just as good as ever. We had a rush of blood to the head when Mark thought last week that petal blight was entirely absent from his Camellia Fairy Blush (the first camellia he ever named – a C. lutchuensis hybrid, not a sasanqua). He examined many spent blooms and finally found one with the telltale white ring. So not blight free, but unaffected in its display.

It is the bigger flowered, paler varieties that look the worst along with the ones bred for show blooms – fewer flowers but with perfect form. It has pretty well wrecked the traditions of camellia shows. Whether time and renewed efforts by plant breeders can replace these types with blight resistant options is still unknown.

Camellia Fairy Blush - not immune but the display is unaffected

Camellia Fairy Blush – not immune but the display is unaffected

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Early flowering camellias

First published in the Weekend Gardener and reproduced here with their permission.

White ‘Early Pearly’ is one of the most beautiful of the sasanquas, while red ‘Takanini’ is a japonica which flowers from early to late in the season.

White ‘Early Pearly’ is one of the most beautiful of the sasanquas, while red ‘Takanini’ is a japonica which flowers from early to late in the season.

There is always something magical about the first flowers and camellias are no exception. They seem fresh and new, heralding the progression of seasons. While the main camellia season is from late winter to mid spring, the earlier varieties bring colour to the late autumn and early winter garden. Early flowers also escape the curse of camellia petal blight which affects mid and later season varieties.

Early camellias fall into three groups: the sasanquas, early flowering species and a few japonica types and hybrid camellias which have an exceptionally long flowering season, continuing from early to late.

We particularly enjoy the charming sasanqua ‘Crimson King’, seen here as a mature shrub with a graceful, arching form.

We particularly enjoy the charming sasanqua ‘Crimson King’, seen here as a mature shrub with a graceful, arching form.


Camellia sasanqua ‘Bonanza’ is a bright spot of colour on a grey day

Camellia sasanqua ‘Bonanza’ is a bright spot of colour on a grey day

The sasanqua camellias originate in Japan and are renowned for being sun tolerant, having smaller leaves and being suitable for clipping to hedges. While some are slow to get going as garden plants, over time they can make graceful, airy, large shrubs. They mass flower and most are scented, in a mossy, slightly sweet sort of way. Their blooms are softer and lack the defined form and substance of most later flowering camellia types. This is an advantage when the flowers fall and break up quickly, rather than leaving a sludge of brown at the base of the plant. While white sasanquas have been particularly popular for some years, they also come in a whole range of pinks to red tones and bi-colours. We prefer the coloured ones for a splash of winter cheer in the garden when there is not a lot else in flower.

‘Fairy Blush’ is a scented hybrid with a very long flowering season.

‘Fairy Blush’ is a scented hybrid with a very long flowering season.

There are a range of early flowering species but these are unlikely to be found for sale these days. The most useful of them for us, are dainty little C. brevistyla and C. microphylla which offer potential as replacements for buxus hedging and are a great deal prettier than box when in flower.

There are some japonica and hybrid camellias which have remarkably long flowering seasons. In the reds, ‘Takanini’ flowers early, middle and late and should be readily available. Later season blooms develop an unusual purple hue. ‘Roma Red’ is a new release and not as widely available, with its formal flowers in mid red. ‘Mimosa Jury’ is a perfect formal in pretty pink and shows good weather hardiness. ‘Fairy Blush’ is a scented, small flowered pale pink and white miniature bloom with an exceptionally long season. These varieties open their first flowers with the sasanquas but continue long after they have finished and will still have flowers when the late season varieties are on show.

For perfection in a bloom, it is hard to go past the formal shape of Camellia ‘Mimosa Jury’ which has the added benefit of showing good weather tolerance without marking badly.

For perfection in a bloom, it is hard to go past the formal shape of Camellia ‘Mimosa Jury’ which has the added benefit of showing good weather tolerance without marking badly.

GROWING CAMELLIAS IN CONTAINERS

Camellia ‘Itty Bit’ is a dwarf variety that has been kept in a pot here for 20 years

Camellia ‘Itty Bit’ is a dwarf variety that has been kept in a pot here for 20 years

All camellias can be grown for a year or two in a pot but you are fighting nature if you want to keep a larger growing variety long term. Plants need repotting every two years to keep them healthy and lush. Unless you are root pruning and shaping the plant regularly, larger growing varieties will soon get too big to handle.

Do not make the mistake of thinking that small flowers mean the plant is small growing and vice versa. You are better to start with varieties with words like “compact”, “dense growth”, “dwarf”, or “slow growing” in their description. Where heights are given, pick those of 100cm or under (and remember that heights are almost always understated on plant labels).

We have had Camellia minutiflora in a succession of containers for about twelve years. We have a miniature “Itty Bit” which has been featured in a container for at least twenty years. On the other hand, it is clear that “Spring Festival” is going to be too large after only three years.

Rules of thumb are not to drown a small plant in an over large pot, to ensure that the pot has plenty of drainage holes at the base and to use a good quality potting mix with slow release fertiliser. Feed by top dressing after the first year and repot with fresh mix after two years.

WHITE SASANQUA CAMELLIAS

There is a range of sasanqua camellias in white. ‘Silver Dollar’ has a long flowering season and is an excellent option for a more compact hedge.

There is a range of sasanqua camellias in white. ‘Silver Dollar’ has a long flowering season and is an excellent option for a more compact hedge.

While ‘Setsugekka’ is the best known white sasanqua in this country, it is not the only one. For perfection in a sasanqua bloom, it is hard to go past ‘Early Pearly’ with its formality in that shape that resembles a water lily. It is unusual to see a formal flower in sasanquas. ‘Silver Dollar’ is a smaller, bushier growing white with a mass of pompom flowers over a long season. It makes an ideal lower hedge option, able to be clipped to about a metre high. ‘Mine No Yuki’ is a slow growing variety, though will ultimately get large if it is not clipped (ours is at least 3 metres high and spans 4 metres wide, though that is after about 50 years). ‘Weeping Maiden’ grows rapidly to give a quick result with its arching growth and masses of large, single white blooms with golden stamens.

CAMELLIA PETAL BLIGHT

Camellia petal blight shows in the top flower as a distinctive white ring whereas the lower flower has been spoiled by botrytis.

Camellia petal blight shows in the top flower as a distinctive white ring whereas the lower flower has been spoiled by botrytis.

If you have been thinking that your mid season camellia display is not what it used to be, you will be right. Camellia petal blight has taken firm hold and cut the display to a fraction of what it used to be.

We have always had botrytis in New Zealand. It is the fungus that turns camellia flowers dark brown and mushy, especially in long periods of damp weather. Petal blight is different. It turns the flowers to a paler coloured mush, spreading through each bloom rapidly. A brown mark one day can cover most of the flower the following day. If you turn the affected bloom over and remove the calyx (the small cap holding the petals together at the end of the stem), you will see a white fluffy ring, indicating camellia petal blight. If it is dark and greyish, it is botrytis. Unfortunately, blighted flowers often hang on the bush rather than falling cleanly. Petal blight is a great deal more rampant than botrytis.

There is no cure and it will take many years before we see resistant varieties on the market. It does not usually take hold before late June or July, so the early flowering camellias can get through with their mass display unaffected.

The ugly face of camellia petal blight which affects mid and later season blooms.

The ugly face of camellia petal blight which affects mid and later season blooms.

Camellia species can be grown from seed. There will be some seedling variation in the plants but they are usually close enough on appearance for hedging purposes. These are last year’s red seed pods on C. microphylla.

Camellia species can be grown from seed. There will be some seedling variation in the plants but they are usually close enough on appearance for hedging purposes. These are last year’s red seed pods on C. microphylla.

COMPACT CAMELLIA HEDGING

Camellia species brevistyla and microphylla offer an option as buxus hedging replacement and can be grown from seed. This plant is C. brevistyla.

Camellia species brevistyla and microphylla offer an option as buxus hedging replacement and can be grown from seed. This plant is C. brevistyla.

Simply the best camellias we have found as a potential replacement for buxus hedging are C. brevistyla and C. microphylla. These two species are very hard to tell apart and must be closely related. Their leaves are a little larger than buxus but they clip very tidily and are a good dark green. Both species have pure white single flowers very early in the season. C. brevistyla is a little slower growing and smaller but its flowering is over quickly. We have built up C. microphylla as replacement hedging for our own garden.

These species may be hard to source but if you can find a parent plant, they can be raised easily from seed. Both set seed freely. Ask at your botanic gardens. Both species were sold in the past by Camellia Haven in Papakura.

There is nothing special about the individual blooms on Camellia sasanqua ‘Showgirl’, but at the time when it flowers, there is nothing to rival its showiness.

There is nothing special about the individual blooms on Camellia sasanqua ‘Showgirl’, but at the time when it flowers, there is nothing to rival its showiness.

The dainty flowers on both C. microphylla and C. brevistyla are almost identical but last longer on the former, seen here.

The dainty flowers on both C. microphylla and C. brevistyla are almost identical but last longer on the former, seen here.

C. microphylla has been kept clipped and shaped in containers for at least 12 years.

C. microphylla has been kept clipped and shaped in containers for at least 12 years.

Taking a second look at camellias as garden plants

Make your old camellia bushes work at more than one level as garden plants

Make your old camellia bushes work at more than one level as garden plants

The scourge of camellia petal blight continues unabated. This was one disease we could have done without in this country and the sad thing is that when it was first discovered in Wellington, it was limited to two or three locations. Had all the infected plants been incinerated immediately, this nasty fungal ailment may have been eradicated. So if you have been looking at your camellias, particularly the most common japonica types (which takes in most of the lovely formals and the really showy blooms), and thinking that their display ain’t what it used to be, you are right.

We have always had botrytis in this country which can turn blooms to a dark mush but is generally not devastating. Modern camellias have been bred to be self grooming – in other words they drop spent flowers rather than holding them onto the bush and giving that unattractive look of some of the very old varieties still around.The trouble with camellia petal blight is that it seems to glue the flower to the plant so it defeats the self grooming process.

The sad sight of camellia petal blight

The sad sight of camellia petal blight

If you are wondering whether you have camellia petal blight, I would be very surprised to hear that you haven’t. It is unstoppable and untreatable. Well, you can treat your plants but you will just get reinfected. Being a fungus, the blight is spread from spore and I recall reading of it being tracked 5km on the wind. So if anybody has a camellia bush within a 5km radius of you, you are in trouble. If you go out and look at your camellias, you will likely find beautiful blooms with a nasty brown stain starting across some of the petals. Within about 24 hours, that bloom will have turned to a light brown colour. If you pull off the flower, turn it over and pull off the calyx on the back (that is the little green hat that holds all the petals together in the middle), you will find the tell-tale ring of white powdery web. That is camellia petal blight. If it is blacky-grey and the spoiled bloom is a darker brown, it is botrytis.

Camellias used to be second only to roses for the volume sold in this country. The bottom has pretty much fallen out of the market now and the volume sold is a fraction of what it used to be. I married in to a leading camellia family. Les Jury, Mark’s uncle, is still remembered internationally, long after his death nearly 30 years ago, for his huge contribution to camellias including such classics as Jury’s Yellow, Anticipation, Ballet Queen, Elegant Beauty and so many more. In his day, Felix Jury was far better known for his beautiful camellias than his magnolias – Waterlily, Dreamboat, Mimosa Jury, Rose Bouquet, Itty Bit and many others. Mark carried the mantle, encouraged by both his uncle and his father, until the day he heard that petal blight was in this country. He ceased all work on breeding camellias immediately and it is only now, well over a decade later, that he is starting to see directions he can take.

All this is such a shame because the camellia remains an enormously useful plant. It is just that we have traditionally seen it primarily as a plant to grow for its flowers. With the huge hit on its flower power, we are tending to ignore the other possibilities and positive aspects.

  • Camellias are unrivalled as a source of nectar for our tui and bellbirds through the winter. Singles and semi doubles with visible stamens will bring the birds to your garden.
  • Camellias remain fantastic hedging. They will sprout again from bare wood and most will tolerate dreaded salt winds. They only need trimming twice a year for a formal hedge and almost never for an informal look or windbreak. For our money, they remain one of the very best hedging options.
  • Autumn flowering sasanqua camellias do not get hit by petal blight. Not at all, that we have ever seen or heard.
  • Red flowered camellias still get petal blight but it doesn’t show up anywhere near as badly. The showiest displays we have had this winter have mostly been from red flowered varieties.
  • Reticulata camellias are commonly in shades of red and have such big flowers that they have sufficient weight to drop cleanly. They continue to put on a splendid display.
  • The little miniatures and single flowered types have many more buds and flowers and, by their very nature, each bloom only lasts a few days so they are usually over before petal blight gets to be unsightly.
  • Camellias are an unsung hero for topiary and clipping. If you get away from the few with really grungy colour and a tendency to turn murky yellow, most camellias have terrific foliage.

Clipping and shaping has never featured large in this country. While we may say that this is because we prefer a more natural look, gardening by its very character is an exercise in controlling and manipulating nature. It is more likely that we lack the labour force to clip extensively and we lack the cultural context to create entire scenes from clipped plants in the traditions of England, Italy, France, China and Japan. While yew and buxus are common clipping candidates overseas, the ubiquitous camellias grow so very well here that they give us an unexpected option. They are evergreen and not generally fussy. They sprout from bare wood so you can cut them back hard and they are very forgiving if you get the cuts in the wrong place. Clipping encourages bushier growth. Many people have large, mature specimens in their gardens so there is an abundance of raw material out there. The flowers then become a bonus not the prime reason for growing the plant. You will still get lovely flowers, just not as many as you used to and they won’t last as long.

If you have gone off your camellias, try getting out there and clipping before you cut them out. Balls, pillars, obelisks, clouds, free form shapes – there are lots of options if peacocks, animals and other birds do not appeal. A camellia bush can continue to justify its place in the garden if you make it work at levels other than just being a pretty flowering shrub.

Plant Collector – reticulata camellias

Camellia reticulata Purple Gown - a little optimistic on the colour

Camellia reticulata Purple Gown - a little optimistic on the colour

It is a sign of the times that I would even consider classifying reticulata camellias as collector’s plants. They used to be widely available and very reasonably priced – in fact greatly underpriced. The problem is that few of the desirable garden forms grow on their own roots so they have to be grafted and there are many plants which are much easier to graft than camellias. Added to that, many of them have virus (which gives variegated leaves and sometimes variegated flowers) weakening the plant and making it even harder to propagate. In fact, the president of the NZ Camellia Society tells me that he doesn’t know of anybody who is grafting camellias commercially these days. It may be a good reason to learn how to do them yourself at home. If you grow them from seed, the vast majority will be single blooms which are good value for feeding the birds but the desirable garden forms are the doubles like this one, somewhat optimistically named Purple Gown.

The reticulatas (commonly referred to as retics) come from western China. What sets them apart are their enormous blooms, often the size of a bread and butter plate or even larger. The foliage is not as shiny as the more common japonica types and is usually larger and more sparse so they make quite open, airy large shrubs and can even be trained to small tree status. It is the advent of camellia petal blight which has had us looking at our big old retics with new respect. Because the bushes are open and the flowers are so large, they tend to drop cleanly rather than hanging on in an unsightly fashion. And with most being in rich shades of deep pink or red, the stronger, darker coloured blooms don’t show up the browning from petal blight anywhere near as much as pale flowers. For late winter flower power, the reticulatas have left the japonicas for dead this year.

Camellia Diary 5, August 29, 2010

Click to see all Camellia diary entries

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

Dainty little camellia species minutiflora

Dainty little camellia species minutiflora

The reticulatas, in this case Glowing Embers, are good value in the garden, despite the ravages of petal blight

The reticulatas, in this case Glowing Embers, are good value in the garden, despite the ravages of petal blight

In years gone by (that is, in days pre-dating rampant camellia petal blight), now would be the time when we would be enjoying mass flowering in the japonica camellias. That has gone. But the reticulata camellias have come into their own. Because most are red, petal blight does not show up as badly and with such huge blooms, the spoiled flowers fall cleanly to the ground. And they still mass flower for us, even if we measure their flowering season in weeks, not months. Reticulatas have become hard to source these days. Few grow on their own roots so they have to be grafted and in this day and age, that is a skill which has all but died out. Most buyers can’t tell the difference between a grafted plant and one which can be mass produced with little skill and great ease so they don’t understand why the former plant should be so much more expensive than the latter. It is a good argument for home gardeners learning the more advanced skills needed to produce these plants at home for themselves. Most of the retics in our garden were grafted by Mark’s father Felix, back in the 1950s and 60s – now they are small trees.

Spring Festival - pretty as a picture

Spring Festival - pretty as a picture

The other group of plants which continue to last the distance in the garden are the miniature flowered varieties, both hybrids and species. Any miniature flowered variety worth its salt should have masses of buds and flowers so it doesn’t matter if petal blight attacks after two or three days because there are so many fresh buds opening and individual blooms rarely last longer than a couple of days. Spring Festival is an American hybrid registered 35 years ago but I wish it had been one of ours because it is as pretty as a picture – a particularly pretty shade of pink with an attractive flower form, plenty of flowers, good pillar growth and a pleasing glaucous cast to the leaf colour. Camellias are a bit like roses – far too many are named and registered and don’t stand the test of time but a few last the distance.
It is also clear that in terms of garden appearance, red camellias are a better bet than pale ones when it comes to petal blight. The reds do not look anywhere near as unsightly in the early stages when the blooms are showing speckles of brown.
Camellia minutiflora is just starting to open. It is a gem of a species with very dark foliage and dainty flowers. We have put a hold on most of the plants in the nursery as we ponder its suitability for formal hedging.