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Cracking Camellias


By AndrewR


Just before Christmas, I wrote a blog on some of the most commonly encountered mahonias; with early spring hopefully not too far away, I thought I would write a similar one on camellias.

The genus of camellia contains over 250 species found from the Himalayas eastwards through China and Japan and south into Indonesia. They are all evergreen shrubs or trees, ranging in height from one to twenty metres. In their native habitats, they grow in woodlands with acid soil and these are the places that suit them best in Britain. But they are reasonably tolerant and will also grow in neutral soils containing plenty of humus. What they resent is a position in cold, drying winds which desiccate the leaves, or positions where the early morning sun can thaw out the flowers too quickly after a frosty night. Further north in the UK, they need more sun to ripen the wood and encourage flowering, but still need a cool, moist root run. They should not be planted too deeply, certainly no deeper than they are growing in the pot when purchased. Pruning is not generally required although dead-heading and a light cutting back can be done. If necessary, hard pruning is tolerated well.

Camellias have been known in the west for over 450 years but it was some time after 1700 before they were introduced into cultivation. Initially, they were thought to be tender and were grown under glass in giant, heated glasshouses and conservatories. It was later discovered they would thrive outdoors as long as they were sheltered from the worst weather. They grow particularly well in Cornwall where the climate most closely resembles their native habitat and many of the great gardens in that county have fine collections of them and are well worth visiting in early spring.

Camellia sinensis has been grown in China for centuries and the leaves harvested to make tea. The Chinese closely guarded this industry for many years and tea was shipped back to Britain on tea clippers which raced the 16000 miles back across the Indian Ocean, round the Cape of Good Hope and up the west coast of Africa to be the first home with the year’s crop; the Cutty Sark in London is last survivor of these ships. Tea was expensive, costing £3 per pound and many attempts were made to obtain tea plants and grow them in India, thus ending the Chinese monopoly and putting the tea trade under British control. This was finally accomplished around the middle of the nineteenth century.

Tea plantation in India – photo courtesy of Iciar

In Japan, it was oil from the seeds that was used, both as a cooking oil and a cosmetic and was believed to have great healing powers.

But it is for the flowers that we grow camellias. According to the species, these can come at any time from autumn through to late spring although it is early to mid spring when most of them bloom. The flowers come in many forms and have been categorised into six types:

single – one row of petals, prominent stamens
semi double – two rows of petals, stamens visible
anemone form – one or more rows of petals, petaloids and stamens in the
peony form – convex mass of irregular petals and petaloids
rose form – convex overlapping petals, stamens showing
formal double – convex overlapping petals, no stamens showing
(a petaloid is a botanical term for something that looks like a petal but isn’t!)

Over the years, breeders have been crossing plants to get flowers of different size, colour and form but camellias often ‘sport’, that is, they spontaneously come up with new flowers different from the rest on the bush. I have one that has white flowers with pink stripes but up to one third of the flowers every year are just pink with no white at all.

Camellia japonica is the species that has produced both the most cultivars for sale here and been used the most to produce hybrids. It can reach nine metres and flowers in early spring, although most of the cultivars flower later. The commonest ones are:
Adolphe Audusson – red, semi double
Alba Plena – white, double
Alba Simplex – white with pink flecks, single
Donckelaeri – white with red marbling, double
Lavinia Maggi – white with pink and red stripes, double

The next most encountered is the hybrid camellia x williamsii. This has as its parents, C. japonica and C. saluensis, the former influencing the foliage and the latter the flowers. This cross was first made at Caerhays Castle, a garden on the south Cornish coast and still owned by the Williams family. This garden is open to the public and I would strongly recommend a visit there to see the camellias, magnolias and rhododendrons – if you can get a guided tour from the Head Gardener as well, it makes for a fascinating day. The williamsii shrubs grow to about five metres so are suitable for smaller gardens. The best ones are:
Anticipation – crimson, peony form (flowers early)
Debbie – deep pink, peony form
Donation – pink, semi double (flowers early)
J C Williams – pale pink, single
Jury’s Yellow – white with yellow petaloids, anemone form
St Ewe – rose pink, single

Others you may come across are:
C. reticulata – up to fifteen metres and on the tender side. Captain Rawes is a form of this with pink semi double flowers
C. saluensis – up to five metres, flowering in early to mid spring. Also none too hardy
C. sasanqua – up to six metres and flowering in mid to late autumn
Cornish Snow – up to 3.5 metres with white, single flowers. Can flower from Christmas to April in a mild winter
Leonard Messel – up to four metres, flowers pink, semi double. Very hardy and flowers over a long period in spring

I realise not everyone has the soil, space or position to grow a camellia. But for those who have, there is a huge choice and the problem will be not to fill the garden entirely with these beautiful spring flowering shrubs.

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Oh dear - mine is the most common one! Never mind, he was bought as a memento of our Ruby Wedding anniversary and he is just the right colour, after all!

Thanks Andrew for all the information in this blog. It is fascinating. How much in today's money would £3 have been?

7 Feb, 2009


This was very interesting. I never knew there were so many types either.
I had a camellia in the other garden but none of the cuttings I took grew. I'll have to think of what type I want to buy for this garden for next year,
A friend if mine has a camellia and I cut it back for her last spring. I cut it down to the bare stump. It's growing back well but no flowerrs this year I don't think.
Pitty about the Cutty Sark.

7 Feb, 2009


Once again a great blog Andrew, I'm interested to know If you had this one previously written, or did you just knock it up over the weekend ?

8 Feb, 2009


Very interesting and informative blog, Andrew. Enjoy your hols.

For anybody worried about food miles, worry no more. The Tregothnan Estate in Cornwall harvested their first tea crop in 2005 and I believe it is sold by Fortnum & Mason. More info at:

8 Feb, 2009


Very interesting Andrew , I have a couple ,one smaller one is not to badly affected but the larger one about 4ft high was covered in this black sooty stuff I went to a lot of trouble to go all over it to wipe it all of came back again, I don,t like to use chemicals if I can help it .. do you have an answer for me ? thanks

8 Feb, 2009


spritz - not sure precisely how much £3 would be in today's money but a working man's wage was just a few shillings per week. So it probably cost up to two months' wages, completely out of reach financially except for the well off. Labourers drank mainly beer, partly for the calories for heavy manual work, partly to avoid drinking infected water and partly, no doubt, make the day seem better!

BS - I wrote it one morning during the week and was waiting for permission to use the photo of the tea plantation before I published it

Amy - although harmless, the sooty mould is caused by secretions from either aphids or scale insects. Ladybirds should deal with the aphids but for scale insects, you need to get parasitic wasps as a biological control. I know majeek uses nematodes for slug control so perhaps you could find out where she buys them and see if they sell these too

8 Feb, 2009


Thanks Andrew ......

8 Feb, 2009


Thank you for that very interesting information. I love those wonderful flowers and have tried to protect the buds during this snow. When we first arrived we accidentally broke a branch. Imangine the joy when the shrub pinged back!!. I now did prune back hard the other stragely bushes to renew their vigur. Hope for flowers next year. Thankyou

8 Feb, 2009


I used to have a wonderful double pink Camellia when I lived down at the coast. Sadly, up here it is too cold in the winter for these gorgeous plants. I miss that tree (it was probably about 10 ft tall) very much.
This is a very interesting blog Andrew. Thank you for posting it. :o)

9 Feb, 2009

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