Tag Archives: white camellias

Our winner in the white camellia stakes – C. yuhsienensis

Camellia yuhsienensis

The world of white camellias is a 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.

My favourite white camellias

Left to right: C. microphylla,  sasanqua Silver Dollar, transnokoensis, drupifera, gauchowensis, yuhsienensis

Left to right: C. microphylla, sasanqua Silver Dollar, transnokoensis, drupifera, gauchowensis, yuhsienensis

When you think about it, it is likely that at least two thirds of camellias are pink with the remaining third shared by red and white. In this country, we have a passion for white flowers. Indeed it is seen as a mark of sophistication in some quarters to create a garden with only white flowered plants (Sissinghurst’s famed white garden meets new-age minimalism in the far flung colony), perhaps alleviated by the occasional addition of one extra colour – touches of red maybe, or black for the ultra sophisticates.

That love affair with white extends to camellias, especially where hedges are concerned. I would guess there are many more white camellia hedges than pink or red ones. While I don’t put the whites on a pedestal above their coloured cousins, there is a charm in pristine, white flowers – though not if they then turn to sludge brown and stay on the bush.

I mentioned Camellia gauchowensis last week. After many weeks, it is still looking splendid and has plenty of flower buds yet to open. We think this is a sasanqua – the Japanese camellias which start flowering in autumn. Many sasanquas have a sort of mossy, earthy scent which is peculiar to this family and C. gauchowensis certainly has it. Some optimists on overseas websites refer to its wonderful fragrance but it is just that typical wet moss sasanqua smell.

The sasanquas bring us the greatest range of good performing pure whites. Pretty much everybody knows Setsugekka with its medium to large semi double flowers and golden stamens. In fact it is not dissimilar to C. gauchowensis, or Weeping Maiden for that matter. There is a whole string of them that are similar, varying more in habit of growth than in flower. C. gauchowensis is probably my favourite only because that is the one I have planted in a prominent spot where I see it frequently.

Early Pearly, one of the loveliest white sasanquas of them all

Early Pearly, one of the loveliest white sasanquas of them all

For beauty of white bloom in the sasanquas, it is hard to go past Early Pearly. It has what is described as a formal flower (a full set of petals with no visible stamens, held in tidy, overlaying circles). If I were to go for a white sasanqua hedge, I would probably pick Early Pearly but it is a matter of taste (and availability). It is the only white sasanqua I know with that flower form.

Away from the sasanquas, there are a fairly large number of species with small, white, single or semi double flowers. Tsaii is well known, though not my favourite. I think as it gets ever larger, it can be a little sparse in the foliage department. I have commented before about our choice of C. microphylla as both hedging and specimen plant. It has all but finished flowering for the season. We are also fans of C. transnokoensis (colloquially abbreviated to ‘transnok’) which has good dark foliage and masses of tiny white single flowers. In fact we are so keen on it that we have just planted two lengths of hedging and it is starting to open its flowers now. We are impressed by the somewhat obscure C. drupifera with its compact habit, dark foliage and plenty of mid-sized pure white flowers.

These single and semi double types have two big advantages. Many feed the birds in winter because the pollen and nectar are readily available in the visible stamens. They also fall and disintegrate quickly, so there is no sludge of spent blooms below. Most have blooms which are pretty short lived but to compensate for that, they set masses of flower buds so there are fresh flowers opening as the spent ones fall.

Whites are far more problematic in the japonica and hybrid camellias. These types tend to have flowers with much more substance – stiffer, more solid. This is where the show blooms come from and there is a wider range of flower form and blooms are often much larger. They also hang on to the bush for longer and the problem with white and pale blooms is that they show all weather damage and then hang about for longer in a brown and white state on the bush.

This one is Superstar. We can't pick it from Lily Pons

This one is Superstar. We can’t pick it from Lily Pons

The only ones I can honestly recommend in these larger flowered, mid season blooming types are Lily Pons or its twin sister, Superstar. We have never been able to pick the difference between the two. They are more semi doubles with fluted petals and golden stamens, showing better weather tolerance and more graceful ageing than other large whites of this type. We have never found a top performing, formal white japonica which doesn’t show every blemish.

In the end, it will come down to availability these days. The range of camellias offered for sale in this country has contracted dramatically. You may have to settle for what you can find, but take heart. There is a fairly high degree of flexibility possible because many actually look similar. In the end, choose on overall performance as a garden plant, not on the beauty of a single bloom.

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