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Every spring I'm caught unawares by two plants in my garden. The first is the blossom on my Victoria Plum, which is currently looking spectacular against the red brick of the gable end of the house. The other is my camellia japonica 'Kramer's Supreme' which up until the last year or so did very little other than take up space in my garden. This year, however, I've been rewarded with a lovely display of brilliant red blossoms which really light up the rather gloomy corner of the garden where the camellia is growing.
The camellia is a relative of the tea plant (camellia sinensis) and is a very slow growing evergreen shrub which does well in light shade, being a woodland plant originating in Asia and which can reach an eventual height of around 25 feet or more and roughly the same in breadth. It was its ability to grow in shade which originally prompted me to buy this plant about five years ago as a good proportion of my garden is in shade these days because of trees planted on the land over my garden wall and I'd estimate that in those five years, the shrub has only grown by approximately 12" to 18" in height, though it has grown rather more in width. The leaves are a dark glossy green oval shape and are rather leathery in texture and certainly in its infant state, it's a fairly innocuous looking plant with very little to recommend it. However, once it begins to bloom, it's transformed into a very showy plant.
The colour range of the blossoms, once the plant decides to put on a show, can range from white through all the shades of pink to deepest red, depending on the variety. The flowers can also be bi-coloured, some of them streaked with a darker striations which give them a look of a rosa mundi. There is a yellow flowered variety, too, but it's pretty hard to get hold of and needless to say, expensive! The flowers also vary from single blooms which show a heart of yellow stamens to the doubles which look almost peony or rose-like though rather more compact at around 2" in diameter.
A well established container grown camellia of about a foot in height is likely to cost in the region of £6 to £8 from a garden centre or nursery but there are often camellia plants sold on eBay for about half that price. If you have the patience, the initial outlay and long wait will be worth it once the shrub begins to bloom.
All the gardening books will tell you that the camellia requires an acid soil and lots of moisture to grown well but my experience tells me something different. Considering I've neglected this shrub since last summer and we've been having a drought here in the south, my camellia has done very well without any watering thoughout the entire winter and has produced plenty of beautiful deep red blooms (about ten so far) which look fabulous against the dark green of the foliage. My soil isn't acid either and so far, I haven't added anything to make it so, other than mulch with leaf mould at the end of last autumn. My soil is fairly neutral which may account for this but if your particular soil is more alkali, a dressing of ericaceous compost should be enough to keep your camellia healthy.
Propagation is usually from semi-ripe cuttings in late summer although these plants can also be propagated through grafting but that's way beyond my horticultural capabilities, however, I took some cuttings from my shrub last summer and over-wintered them in a cold frame. They seem to have come through the winter alright but it's too early to see whether the roots are firmly established yet.
In the five years that I've had my camellia it hasn't shown any signs of disease or even insect attack. I'm guessing those leathery leaves are too hard for even the greediest insect to digest. My RHS book tells me that there is a potential problem with aphids, scale insects, and leaf spot but so far, my shrub seems to have avoided these. All the aphids in my garden seemed to make a beeline for my roses last year!
These shrubs can become a little leggy but they respond well to hard pruning. I've only clipped back a few branches on my shrub so far but the result was that the branches grew back far thicker and more lush than before the pruning, so don't be afraid to go at it with the secateurs once in a while.
In my opinion, every garden should have a camellia, especially if you have a shady spot where nothing seems to lighten the gloom. I guarantee that given a year or five, any camellia you plant will reward you with a lovely spring show.
Isnt winter depressing? No, Im not talking about SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). I mean the garden. You look out and what do you see? Green, if youre lucky. Brown if youre not.
Actually, our garden isnt too bad. We have a number of evergreens. Some bushes have variegated leaves, just to relieve the monotonous conformity of colour. It helps.
We also have a Box. This is the most unusual bush I have ever seen. The leaves turn brown in autumn but simply refuse to fall off! Its not until the spring, when the new growth emerges, that the new sprouts finally push the old leaves off!
We were visiting the in-laws last November and paying our usual visit to our all-time favourite garden centre, Willow Pool in Mere, Cheshire. As usual we were browsing around the most extraordinary collection of antiques and brick-a-brack you have ever seen (yes, this is a garden centre; they just have the most amazing collection of junk for sale as well) when we came across a blaze of colour.
Here was a collection of camellias, all in full bloom. This was November dont forget. The predominant colour was pink but there were also various shades of red as well. My wife looked at me and almost in unison we said We really need one of these.
One particular variety stood out. A Camellia Japonica Yuba Shibori. The flowers are a beautiful variegated pink, almost striped, light and dark pink. It had loads of flowers on and plenty of buds, showing that there were loads more still to come. The leaves are a shiny intense dark green. Ours stands about three feet tall.
According to the label the camellia flowers from February to April. Clearly no one had told this one! It has given us endless pleasure throughout the winter. Maybe Global Warming has something to do with this? Not once has been without blossom. Only now is it starting to lose its final flowers.
And the way the flowers die is unusual. The whole flower falls off in full development. The ground around the plant looks like its covered with an abundance of ground-cover plants. Of course, eventually they fade to brown.
The camellia likes a shady location and a predominantly acidic soil. They love moist soil but will not tolerate water-logged soil. It helps to mulch the soil around the roots, to ensure the soil doesnt dry out and to provide a fertile environment. They are not particularly susceptible to insects of disease so, well looked-after, should last for years.
Camellias are not cheap. Ours cost us £45. But, for the pleasure it brings, I think thats good value.