February 2021: Camellia
Members of the tea family, these wonderful shrubs have glossy evergreen leaves, covered in fairly large flowers ranging from white, through pink to red or even yellow. Depending on the species they can be in flower from October to May. It was known as the ‘Japan Rose’ and often depicted on porcelain and wallpaper. 8
The genus was named by Linnaeus after the Jesuit pharmacist Georg Joseph Kamel (1661-1706), who worked in the Philippines and described a species of camellia. Apparently it should be pronounced Cam-ell-ia, rather than Camee-lia.
The first recorded camellia in this country was grown by Robert James, Lord Petre at Thorndon Hall, Essex when it flowered in 1739 but unfortunately he died of smallpox aged 29. James Gordon, Lord Petre’s Head Gardener, started a nursery after his master’s death and introduced camellias for sale in 1745. Further imports were not brought in until 1792 when two came from China paid for by John Slater, a Director of the East India Company on the tea clipper ‘Carnatic’ followed by several more introductions via the East India Company. One of the parents of the famous ‘Donation’ was shipped back from Japan by Dr Siebold to Antwerp during the revolution of 1830. The camellia cases were unloaded and unfortunately they ended up where a troop of cavalry horses were stabled. The only camellia to survive was one of the parents of ‘Donation’.
When in Season
Camellia sasanqua flowers in late autumn to early winter and is usually scented. It was introduced by the famous Veitch Nursery about 1879 by Charles Maries from mountainous west Japan. It is far less hardy than the C. x williamsii and in the UK needs a very sheltered, warm site. They seem to be doing quite well in my oak woodland. A good variety is ‘Narumigata’ which is white with a touch of pink and probably has the strongest scent.
Camellia x williamsii is much hardier than C. japonica and was a cross of C. japonica with C. saluenensis by J. C. Williams of Caerhays, Cornwall . In the UK we prefer plants that drop their dead flowers which is achieved by the williamsii crosses. This was considered a fault by the Japanese who disliked flowers falling intact, as it was said to remind them of heads decapitated by swords so C. japonica is preferred by them. ‘Donation’ a beautiful semi-double pink is a very famous williamsii and can be in flower from February to May. This was bred by Colonel Stephenson Clarke of Borde Hill, Sussex.
How to Grow
Neutral to acid soil or if container grown, ericaceous compost must be used. Growing in semi-shade helps preserve the flower colour and they prefer a 8 7sheltered site. They need to be well-watered between April and October when the buds are forming.
Not usually necessary, but if required to keep within bounds, it should be done directly after flowering.
If the leaves become yellow the pH of the soil may be incorrect so a good dose of Sequestrene from the Garden Centre can help.
Semi ripe cuttings can be taken August to October and placed undercover with bottom heat. Alternative methods are hardwood cuttings or seed.
Claire Jenkins MCIHort