Camellias: love them or hate them?

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I’ve decided that camellias are a ‘marmite’ plant. There are plenty of gardeners who love their rose-like blooms which are produced in spring over glossy evergreen foliage: and then those who hate them, likening the blooms to brash rosettes and the leaves to those of privet.

I wonder if the appeal of camellias has something to do with the soil that you first started gardening on? I grew up with my fingers in chalk soil, the limey nature of which is unsuitable for growing camellias, rhododendrons, heathers and a whole host of ‘acid-loving’ or ‘lime-hating’ plants. Instead I was a fan of viburnums, cornus, philadelphus, and the like, as well as all manner of herbaceous perennials. I’m sure that even by the time I went to horticultural college, I was somewhat grudging about camellias and the like precisely because I couldn’t grow them and hadn’t even tried them in containers of ericaceous (lime-free) compost.

My horticultural education, followed by moves to different parts of the country where I gardened on neutral to acid soils, quickly taught me of the amazing range of plants that I had been missing. And, of course, I then wanted to grow them – all, that is, except camellias. For me the flowers looked artificial, held over ‘plastic’ foliage, and bloomed at a time of year when there were so many other lovely spring plants to grow. It’s the only way I can explain it now.

Eye opener

But then I discovered sasanqua camellias. These shrubs flower from late autumn through until late winter and have been bred from the species Camellia sasanqua, as well as C. hiemalis and C. vernalis. Their leaves and blooms are generally smaller than their spring-flowering cousins, and the plants appreciate sun and warmth in a sheltered part of the garden. The first one of these I saw, blooming in November, was the variety ‘Narumigata’ with pink-flushed, white blooms around a glowing mass of yellow stamens and all set off against glossy, toothed leaves. I think you can tell by that description that I fell in love!

And, perhaps more interestingly, that changed my feeling towards all camellias. In fact in my last garden – on acidic sand – I grew around ten different varieties of the spring-flowering C. x williamsii hybrids, both single- and double-flowered, along with three sasanquas. I’d finally realised what a wonderful evergreen backdrop they create for other plants and come to appreciate their flowers for their range of different form and colour.

More recently I’ve discovered the aptly-named, winter-flowering ‘Yuletide’, pictured here, which is a favourite of leading camellia expert, Jennifer Trehane (Trehane Nursery, near Wimborne, Dorset). For me it is one of the most perfect colour combinations, the brilliant red petals set off beautifully by the mid-green leaves. It’s so good that I grow one in a large pot of ericaceous compost, for I’ve returned to gardening on the chalk of my youth. But now I’m a great deal wiser about camellias… though I haven’t grown to love marmite!

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