Tag Archives: Camellia yuhsienensis

The difference between clipping, hacking and blind pruning

Camellia yuhsienensis – not self grooming but apparently resistant to camellia petal blight. To save you the bother of contacting me: no, we no longer sell any plants at all these days and I think it is unlikely that this particular camellia is still commercially available in New Zealand.

‘Blind pruning’ is not, as some might assume, an activity carried out by the visually impaired. An old horticulturist introduced me to the term years ago. Essentially, it is pruning that is carried out so that the end result does not show evidence of it, even though it can be quite extreme. Skilled and careful pruning, as opposed to clipping or, at its worst, hacking. It is a higher-level skill.

I lacked confidence in my ability to carry out extreme pruning without making it obvious so usually left it up to Mark but this year I doubted that he was going to work to my timetable and told myself I can do it. Camellias are obliging plants to work with because if you get it wrong, they come away again with new season’s growth able to sprout from bare wood.

Clipping is done with hedge clippers. We do it with our camellia hedges and with some shaped camellias. It is what gets the sharp definition. The first shaping takes skill – and time – but from then on, any reasonably capable person with a set of sharp clippers can maintain that shape.

Before…

After. Definite hacking on the middle plant but that was the only option to get back the shape I want

Extreme cutting – hacking, as I call it – is unsightly until the fresh flush of growth covers the bare ends but it is sometimes the only option. In this border, I wanted to get the middle camellia, ‘Spring Festival’ back to a mounded growth sitting lower than the four standards behind it. With very little foliage left in the middle of the bush, there was no alternative to extreme cutting and now is the time of the year to do it because it will put on a flush of new growth very soon. It won’t flower well next year but should hit its stride again in 2022.

The four standard camellias behind are all Mark’s hybrid ‘Pearly Cascade’ and they needed more love. Between the two photos, I have removed at least a third of the growth and they look better for it. You would have to look close into the plant to find the fresh cuts because it is not obvious to view. That is blind pruning, as I understand it.

Before…

… and after

The feature camellias in the sunken garden area have not had my attention for the last two or three years and they did not look lovely this year. This is ‘Pearly Cascade’ again, grown au naturelle rather than the grafted standards in the earlier border. It is a pretty enough little camellia although the flower is not by any means unique. It is very like ‘Nicky Crisp’ in bloom. It was as much the habit of growth that encouraged Mark to name and release it. It keeps excellent foliage in full sun and stays low with arching, spreading growth rather than shooting upwards. This plant must be 15 or 20 years old and has just received the odd passing nip and tuck to keep it to size.

But that spreading foliage is dense and doesn’t allow spent blooms to fall. Breeding for self-grooming – where a plant drops its spent blooms – was a big focus for Mark’s camellia breeder Uncle Les and his father, Felix. It stops that ugly look where sludgy brown blooms stay on the bush. But when the foliage is too dense, the blooms can’t fall and that has become even more of problem with rampant camellia petal blight.

‘Pearly Cascade’

Mark is unusually derisive (he not a man much given to derision) about the idea of ground cover camellias or michelias. Both are heavy blooming plants and when they are spreading, as ground cover is, there is no way those spent blooms can fall so they just congregate as a mush on top.

I started on this plant by nipping back the top to the height I want, followed by shortening the sides. This is all work done with secateurs. Then it is an exercise in delving into the body of the plant and reducing the dense growth – taking out wispy branches, short growths and badly crossing branches first and then selecting which remaining stems are superfluous and can be cut back flush to the trunk. It is precise work and it takes time. There is much stepping back to look. In the end, I reduced the plant by about 50% and it looks a whole lot better for it.

Before…

The two C. yuhsienensis were more of a challenge. They had grown huge without us really noticing, larger than we want in this area. This is a beautiful species but it is not self grooming at all. Mind you, with all those spent blooms still on the bush, we examined them and can report that it appears to be impervious to camellia petal blight so that is a bonus.

… and after

and the matched plant on the other side

I needed the kitchen step ladder and a pruning saw as well as secateurs but the approach was the same – reduce the height, narrow the spread and then thin the middle. Even I was surprised by how much I removed but the plants look a whole lot better for that. Looking from above, I can see that I need to remove more from the right-hand side of the one at the front to get a better balanced plant. The four lollipop camellias – another compact cultivar of Mark’s that we call ‘Pink Poppet’ but never released commercially, still need to be trimmed but they are a hedge clipper job. They get shaped like an umbrella or mushroom because we want that flattish, curved shape rather than round top-knots.   The tops are currently out of proportion to the stems on these grafted standards.

Those are piles of prunings lying on the grass beside the four plants trimmed so far

Mark’s advice, given to me often down the years, is not to keep lifting and trimming up plants. Over time what evolves – and we have a few examples of these from my earlier efforts – is a plant with bare legs that looks as though it has been grazed by stock up to the level where they can no longer reach. That is why the top down, outside in and then thinning the interior works better to retain a more natural form. If you plan to keep a plant clipped or trimmed, longer term it is easier if you keep the height down to what can be managed without a ladder.

It took hard pruning to achieve this shape, now it is maintained by a simple annual haircut with sharp hedge clippers

Clipping gives sharp definition, at least for a couple of months after the annual trim

Postscript

I didn’t set out to write a definitive piece about pruning camellias but will add two points and links to earlier advice on chainsaw pruning.

Firstly, if you are ever pruning camellias with variegated flowers and foliage (often showing as mottled yellow and green leaves but not every leaf will be mottled), you are likely pruning a camellia which has a virus that causes such variegations. Make sure you disinfect your cutting tools afterwards, before touching any other camellias or you risk transferring the virus. Virus is not always bad but it will weaken the plant and you probably don’t want mottled foliage throughout your camellias.

The mottled leaves and the irregular variegation on the flowers are a good indicator of the presence of virus

Secondly, if you are going to do the chainsaw massacre number and cut a camellia off close to the ground, we recommend cutting about a metre up and leaving some framework to the plant. If you cut it off close to the ground, it will re-sprout as a thicket and you will never get a good-shaped plant out of it, though you will be able to clip to a mound. If you leave some branch structure and a central leader (main trunk), you will get a better-looking plant in the long term.

Now is the time (late winter to early spring here) to carry out such extreme pruning so the fresh growth that will sprout soon can be made on the bare wood.

This piece from 2016 shows the results of chainsaw pruning six months later.

Back in 2011 when I used to do step by step sequences for the newspaper, I covered hard pruning of camellias. My photography has improved a bit since then but the information is still relevant.

The early camellias

49 different cultivars in bloom at this early time of the season

It was a bit bleak outdoors today and I could not find the motivation to grub around in the soil so I entertained myself looking at the camellias in bloom. It is very early in the season for us and most are still in tight bud but I found 49 different ones with open flowers.

A collection of sasanquas

The early sasanquas are past their peak now but still very pretty. All the above are different named cultivars and typical, with their rather loose form and a readiness to shatter when they fall. This is helpful because it means the mass of fallen blooms break down quickly. Sasanquas used to be somewhat spurned as lacking flower form, useful mostly for hedges and sunny positions but fashions change. They are not afflicted by petal blight here which is a huge plus and these days, we find we prefer those looser flowers which have a pretty charm of their own.

Show Girl!

I didn’t add Show Girl to the sasanqua flower ring because it is so out of scale. It is a most unusual cross between a sasanqua and a reticulata and it comes into full flower early, with the sasanquas. The individual blooms are nothing special but it is lovely both on the tree or falling to a carpet of petals beneath.

The earliest flowering species

We have gathered up a reasonable collection of camellia species over the years – most of what has been available in this country. But it appears that this early in the season, you can have any colour you like as long as it is white. Or the one, minuscule pink C. puniceiflora. In the centre is C. yunnanensis already showing its unfortunate trait of the stamens turning black with age. Camellias where the stamens stay yellow are far more desirable.

Three different species or all variants of the one?

These three species came to us under the names of C. brevistyla (left), C. microphylla (right) and C. puniceiflora (top). Australian camellia expert, Bob Cherry, advanced the theory to Mark that they are all just different forms of the same species and Mark has come to the conclusion that he is probably right after several seasons of examining them with his hand lens. Species in the wild can vary considerably. In time, DNA testing will prove it either way. Of these three camellias, the form of C. microphylla that we have is easily the best as a garden plant.

Hybrids, seedlings and a few japonicas

These are a mix, some named cultivars and some seedlings. Mark has used camellias extensively for hedging and shelter around the perimeters of the garden, on our roadside and separating different areas. You can see how desirable it is for the stamens to stay yellow as they age. Generally, it is the ones with visible stamens that provide an important source of food for the birds and the bees through winter. The fully double, frilly blooms are purely ornamental. The majority of the japonicas and all the reticulatas are still just at bud stage and, alas, will be hit by camellia petal blight when they do come into bloom.

There is a whole lot more to choosing a camellia than just a pretty flower. The habit of growth, ultimate size, length of time in flower, how the blooms age and fall, colour of the foliage, reliability and more come in to play as well.  Sometimes everything else is so good that a pretty ordinary flower is still acceptable. One of the red singles above is worth its place simply because it feeds our native tui (birds) – a sight that brings us pleasure every year.

We have literally hundreds, if not into the thousands camellias all over the property. Some are named, many more are just seedlings from the breeding programme. But they are almost all just one-off plants. I can think of only four that we have planted in quantity. The three bottom ones above, we have used as hedging. From left to right, they are Mark’s first named cultivar, ‘Fairy Blush’, C. transnokoensis and C. minutiflora. All three have small leaves that respond well to clipping, good foliage colour, dense growth and masses of dainty flowers.

The flower in the top centre is C. yuhsienensis – not a hedging camellia but one we like so much that we have chosen to feature it repeatedly in two different areas of the garden. In bloom, at its best, it resembles a pretty michelia but with bullate (heavy textured) foliage.

Mark says he found the first incidence of camellia petal blight today. This is later than usual, which we put down to a drier than usual autumn. I admit I lose enthusiasm for camellias as the season progresses and blight hits badly but these early season bloomers gladden my heart on a winter’s day.

Our winner in the white camellia stakes – C. yuhsienensis

Camellia yuhsienensis

The world of white camellias is quite heavily populated, especially if you narrow it down to white species camellias. Over time, we have gathered up most of the species that have been available to us, and very lovely many of them are. But the one we have singled out as the most attractive specimen plant is Camellia yuhsienensis.

You can tell how much we love this plant by the fact that we have chosen to use it as a feature plant. I just counted and found we have no fewer than seventeen of them as specimen plants, each sitting in its own space – not hedged or jammed in with other plants. It is not usually our style to repeat a single cultivar like that. Mark threaded it through the new gardens – the grass garden and the lily border – to give winter interest.

Threaded through the lily border to give winter interest. That is visible frost this morning. And a freshly dug rabbit scrape. The rabbits are still winning here. We may yet have to get a cat again, given our dogs are pretty useless on the rabbits.

What do we love about it so much? It has handsome, bullate (textured) foliage which is not the usual shiny green associated with japonica camellias. It sets an abundance of buds in pointed clusters and opens them over a long period of time. But it is the flowers that are the real delight – pristine, white single blooms, good-sized and looking more like michelia or magnolia than classic camellia. And it holds its blooms well out from its leaves and branches. The blooms are not substantial but that can be an advantage in a camellia, especially when there is a long succession of fresh blooms waiting to take over. It is just a delight to us.

Some reports mention an overwhelming fragrance but we think that either that claim is exaggerated, the Chinese have greatly sensitised nasal capacities or the clone we grow here didn’t get much fragrance. It is really only lightly scented and that requires sticking one’s nose right up to the bloom. Nothing, alas, is perfect and we need to give the bushes an occasional shake or brush to get rid of spent blooms because they don’t always fall cleanly.

For NZ camellia purists, we grow the mounding selection chosen by Neville Haydon, back in his days at Camellia Haven

The native habitat of C. yuhsienensis is in the Hunan area of China which is, loosely speaking, southern(ish) and inland, with mountains, so it is not a tropical area. We have found it to be completely hardy in our conditions, although our winters are hardly testing. Because it is a species, plants raised from seed will show species variation. We started with two forms but always vegetatively propagated them to keep the selections stable. We had an upright columnar form but ended up cutting it out because the foliage and flowering were nowhere near as good as the mounding form we kept.

The bad news is that I doubt that it is commercially available these days in NZ so you will have to search hard to find one. I have to say that because it is disconcerting to me how many people read these posts and assume they are commercially driven and we must therefore be selling the plant and can send them one. Um, no. I write these posts because I am a writer by nature, we love gardening and it is greatly rewarding how many readers share this pleasure. I appreciate the comments. The phone calls and emails trying to order plants from us – not so much.

Superstar

And just because I took a nice photo of it this week, I close with Superstar. It grows at least four times the size as C. yuhsienensis, probably with a quarter of the flowers, if that, but it can show a lovely bloom. It is hard to beat a beautiful white camellia on its day.

Camellia Diary number 3: July 3, 2010

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July may see days getting a little longer but it also tends to herald the worst of our winter weather. However as chill, grey days can be interspersed, as today and indeed, last weekend, with positively mild days when it is possible to garden comfortably and shed layers of clothing, the camellias flower on undeterred.

The sasanquas are drawing to the end of their season but Elfin Rose, who opened her first blooms at the very end of March, is still a significant patch of lolly pink and dark forest green. Three months of flowering is better than most of the other sasanquas manage. Silver Dollar also just gets better every year and is excelling with an extended flowering season. We think Silver Dollar, being lower and slower growing, would make a good hedge. Alas were it not for the wonderful shape and maturity of Mine No Yuki, it would have had the chop by now. It does not justify its place here as a flowering plant where the pristine white blooms turn to brown mush in our rains.

The ever faithful Camellia Waterlily

The japonicas are just starting – the first flowers came on good old Waterlily, one of the first camellias named here by Felix. The original plant is pretty sizeable now – maybe six metres – but the early flowers are as lovely as ever. Half sister, Softly (another saluenensis hybrid) is also showing plenty of open bloom. In the class of pale formals, Softly shows good weather resistance. We went on a magnolia tour in northern Italy a few years ago and the timing coincided with the peak of their japonica display, and what a display. We soon worked out that camellias in that climate mass flower over a much shorter period of time. Here, ours flower for much longer but without that oomph all at once.

The lovely species yuhsienensis

Compact C. drupifera, planted here with burgundy aeonium and cordyline

In the species, C.gauchowensis is looking lovely but the star this week is the compact C.drupifera. Or maybe C.yuhsienensis. It is hard to decide – all look lovely with pristine white blooms. Yuhsienensis takes a bit of grooming to stay looking its best but it is such a lovely camellia. We have a row of about 50 plants in our open ground area which we are still debating about using as a hedge. Puniceiflora continues flowering – puny flowers but still with a simple, small charm.

Alas I found the disconcerting sight of the first instance of the dreaded camellia petal blight at the very beginning of June (about June 2, from memory). It just seems to get earlier every year but it is not yet showing up badly on garden plants so I will return to the topic later when it is no longer possible to ignore it.