Tag Archives: sasanqua camellias

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.

The autumn camellias

Camellia sasanqua Crimson King in prime position

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.

Crimson King rests more on its merits of form and position than the beauty of individual blooms

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.

The earliest of the sasanquas here – all named varieties

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.

Camellia Mine No Yuki

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.

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.