When Mark returned home to Tikorangi in 1980 bringing me and our first baby bump, the name Jury was synonymous with camellias. These days Jury = magnolias, but not back then. There is a whole chapter in the family history that is headed ‘Camellias’ but it is largely in the past now. Changing fashion, changing focus and the dreaded camellia petal blight has seen to that.
But every autumn, as the sasanquas come into flower we both derive huge delight, particularly from the Camellia Crimson King by the old mill wheel, which is just out from our back door beside the driveway. It is a picture of grace and charm.
Sasanquas are the unsung heroes of the camellia family, seen mostly as hedging plants, so utility rather than glorious. But if they are allowed to mature as specimens and gently shaped down the years, they stand on their own merits. Mark declared yesterday that it is the autumn flowering camellias that interest him now, not the late winter and spring varieties. For these autumn ones do not get petal blight whereas the later varieties are now a mere shadow of their former selves, faced by the extreme ravages wrought upon their blooms by blight. Our camellia trip to China in 2016 had us concluding that our mild, humid climate with high rainfall means that we suffer worse from petal blight in Taranaki than pretty much anywhere else, really. It is nowhere near as bad in dry climates.
The history of camellias from the middle of last century onwards has some parallels to the history of tulips – all about show and showy blooms. So it was predicated on the quest for the new – extending the boundaries of flower form, size and colour, prizing breakthroughs even when the results were more novelty than meritorious. Camellia societies had enormous flower shows where the staging of individual show blooms was the focus. It didn’t have much, if anything, to do with garden performance let alone longevity as garden plants. Sasanquas didn’t fit this show bench mould. They flowered too early in the season, individual blooms are often quite small, lacking rigid, defined form and falling apart when picked.
But fashions and conditions change and these days it is the softer look of the Japanese camellia family member, the sasanquas, that makes us stop and take notice more than the later flowering japonicas and hybrids on which the earlier family reputation was forged. The light airiness and grace of the sasanquas fits our style of gardening far better than the solid, chunkiness of many of the later varieties and the autumn flowers serve as another marker of the change of season.
I did a walk around to see how many different blooms I could pick but it is still a little early in the season and some have yet to open. Some plants we leave entirely to their own devices, some we will clean up the canopy from time to time -to take out dead wood and create an umbrella effect, two we clip tightly once a year to a cloud pruned form. With their small leaves, the sasanquas clip well. It just pays to do it soon after they have made their new growth after flowering. Leave it until late spring and you will be clipping off all the flower buds set for next autumn.
It takes a few decades of growth to get sufficient size to shape as we shape ‘Elfin Rose’ and ‘Mine No Yuki’ but these specimens now function as distinctive shapes within the garden all year round, rather than melding into the background as most camellias do when not in bloom.