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.