Tag Archives: sasanqua camellias

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)

Plant Collector – sasanqua camellias

028Gardening is wonderfully cyclic on an annual basis. I know I have written about sasanqua camellias before but each year they flower prettily yet again. These are the Japanese camellias that light up the late autumn and early winter. There is a softness to the blooms which is in contrast to the stiffer japonicas that flower later in winter and early spring.

If you live in Auckland, it is the law to plant only Setsugekka, a big growing white sasanqua. I jest but that is the one you will see there at a ratio of about 20:1. In fact sasanquas come in all shades of pinks, bicolours and even reds as well as the fraightfully restrained whites. Going clockwise from left in the photo are: Elfin Rose, Gay Border, Bettie Patricia, Silver Dollar, Bert Jones and Crimson King. Some may no longer be available on the market but there is usually one that will look very similar.

Sasanquas can be slow to establish but left to their own devices, will make light, airy, large shrubs over time. They also clip very well so are ideal for hedging and topiary. When clipped regularly, the growth is much denser. The foliage is smaller and often darker green than many other types of camellias. Some describe them as fragrant. They have a distinctive mossy, slightly earthy sort of scent – it is one of the defining characteristics of a sasanqua.

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

Garden lore

“Now us the time to thin out the carrots…” (is) an observation which always makes me come out in a cold sweat, when I read it in a London paper. As though the earth were hardening, minute by minute, so that one must rush up to the country and do things before it is too late.”

Down the Garden Path by Beverley Nichols, (1932).

Camellia sasanqua Crimson King

Camellia sasanqua Crimson King

Autumn flowering sasanqua camellias
Most of the early camellias just coming into bloom now are sasanquas. Not snackwas, sankwas or other variants. Nor are they all white and called Setsugekka, as rather a lot of novice gardeners used to think.

Sasanquas come from Japan (most of the other types of camellias are Chinese) and are small woodland trees in their native habitat. They generally have smaller, darker leaves which is why they clip so well to hedges as well as being tolerant of full sun and wind. Being somewhat slower to get away as nursery plants, you may find plants for sale are a little smaller and more spindly than their stronger growing japonica cousins but they make up for it when planted out. While often described as scented, it is a mossy sort of scent rather than sweet perfume.

The big plus for sasanquas now is that they are generally free from petal blight which is decimating the flowering displays of many other camellias. Petal blight is what turns lovely camellia blooms splotchy and brown almost overnight. I hedge my bets.

We have never seen it on a sasanqua camellia here and we have been looking since seeing reports on the internet that it can attack them. As far as we are concerned they don’t get it in our conditions so we enjoy the full floral display through autumn into winter. If you don’t want a clipped hedge or a topiary shape, sasanquas can make graceful, light airy trees to about 3 metres over time.

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

Plant Collector: Sasanqua camellia Crimson King

Crimson King - harbinger of autumn

Crimson King - harbinger of autumn


Crimson King forms a graceful, open shrub when mature

Crimson King forms a graceful, open shrub when mature

Crimson King heralds the arrival of autumn. It is a sasanqua, one of the autumn flowering camellia family from Japan. Too many people seem to think that sasanqua is synonymous with Setsugekka (how clichéd is the Setsugekka screen planting?) and only comes in white. In fact there are a relatively large number of family members, including Crimson King. It has the usual sasanqua attributes of finer foliage and a graceful, open habit of growth as it matures. In addition to that, the exceptionally long flowering season means it will last well in winter.

Single flowers have just one row of petals and exposed yellow stamens in the centre. The birds and the bees, and indeed the butterflies, need these stamens exposed to be able to feed from the flower. Big full forms or sterile formal flowers are not a source of pollen and nectar. Most sasanquas lack the highly refined flower forms so prized in japonica camellias but single flowers like this shatter and dissipate without ever leaving a sludgy mess below. There is also a simple charm in such a simple flower.

Sasanquas are renowned for being one of the most sun and wind tolerant types of camellias. They also flower early enough in the season to avoid the dreaded camellia petal blight. Overseas reports say that they can suffer from this dreaded fungal ailment but we have never seen it in our sasanquas here. Crimson King has a pleasant scent if you stick your nose right in the flower but I think that the faint waft of fragrance in camellias is rather over-hyped.

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

Tried and True – sasanqua camellias

The cheerful face of Camellia sasanqua Gay Border

• Autumn flowering.
• Excellent hedging and good wind tolerance.
• Generally happy in full sun or partial shade.
• Widely available in a range of colours.
• Hardy in all Taranaki conditions.
• Not affected by camellia petal blight.

The first camellias of the season to flower each year are the sasanqua group from Japan. The white sasanqua hedge, Setsugekka in particular, has become a garden cliché in New Zealand but that should not detract from the garden value of this useful and hardy group of evergreen shrubs. When the deciduous trees are changing colour and dropping their foliage, the mass flowering of sasanquas is a cheerful sight. With smaller leaves in a good deep green and a growth habit that is a little lighter and airier than the rather solid japonica camellias which flower later in winter, sasanquas are less chunky as garden plants.

As well as the whites (Early Pearly, Silver Dollar, Mine No Yuki and the like), there is a whole range of pinks from pale to deep shades, a few reds and some attractive bi-colours such as the deep pink and white Gay Border. The flowers are softer and less formal than the japonicas. If you want to clip your sasanqua camellia, the rule of thumb is to do it as flowering ends with a follow-up on wayward growths in spring. It will then hold its tidy form for the rest of the year.

Camellia Diary – the second entry. May 13, 2010

Click to see all Camellia diary entries

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

Camellia sasanqua Elfin Rose - a personal favourite

Camellia sasanqua Elfin Rose - a personal favourite

Now that we are well and truly into autumn, it is the sasanquas which are the dominant flowering shrub in the garden. What they sometimes lack in flower substance and form, they more than make up in mass display. And in a country where camellias are used extensively as garden plants and shelter, we have been hit hard by the advent of the dreaded camellia petal blight from mid season onwards. The sasanquas flower early enough to miss the onset of that scourge.

Crimson King - a graceful plant with a light canopy

My personal picks are Elfin Rose and Crimson King which just keep on flowering but there are a host of others which are very charming in their own right – Bettie Patricia, Gay Border, Mine No Yuki, Yoimachi (a sasanqua hybrid), Bonanza and Silver Dollar to name but a few.

Many of our plants are decades old, three to four metres high and just as wide. Of all the different groups of camellias, sasanquas particularly lend themselves to clipping and shaping, turning into either layered forms or light canopies often growing from multiple trunks. There is a grace to be found in their natural growth habit and form which is not always present in the more sturdy japonicas.

In the species, we couldn’t help but notice that brevistyla was brief indeed in flower. While individual blooms continue to open, the mass flowering can only have lasted ten days. The closely related microphylla, however, has continued to put on a really good show for nigh on a month now. I was writing a piece on the earliest flowering camellias for a national gardening magazine and friend and president of the NZ Camellia Society, Tony Barnes, mentioned C.granthamiana as one of the earliest to open.

We are pretty sure it is C. gauchowensis

We have it somewhere in the garden but we appear to have mislaid it – which is to say that Mark can’t remember where he planted it and neither of us have come across it yet. We have what we think is C.gauchowensis in flower. It is another pristine white single bloom as many of the species are , on a narrow, columnar bush. Unfortunately it does get easily weather-marked. Few of the species are inherently spectacular when compared to the modern cultivars on offer but they have a quiet charm which we enjoy.