The camellia walk at Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire. Photo: John Campbell
Sarah Morgan picks the best camellias for gardeners and designers
Camellias come in a range that flower from September to May, and when not in flower they have a shapely, evergreen presence. There are lots of places you can use these plants creatively: in pots, which can then be moved around; as a neat bush along a pathway; wall-trained if space is tight; or grown in an opening in woodland or dappled shade.
“We find camellias useful for slightly shady spots as they are so well behaved and versatile,” says Keith Pocock MSGD from Stephen Woodhams Design. “I use them for evergreen screening, as an informal hedge or at the back of a mixed border.” Keith says he often uses them as a full stop at the end of a border, and as you can also shape them with pruning, they look good in formal situations.
\'Free Spirit\' has symmetrical red flowers that bloom from January onwards. Photo: Sarah Morgan
In the UK, we mostly plant varieties of Camellia japonica because there are so many cultivars available, in a vast array of flower shapes and colour. C. japonica ‘Takanini’, for example, is a modern variety with an incredibly long season of flowering from late November through to spring.
C. sasanqua are autumn-flowering camellias, which you find in flower from September to January. There are also a few related species, such as C. hiemalis and C. x vernalis, sold under this banner. They’re some of the least fussy, so best for a south or southwest-facing wall, plus drier, wetter and even mildly alkaline soils. These types can have a musky scent and vary enormously in shape, from the vigorous ‘Crimson King’ to low-growing ‘Tanya’, which looks particularly good next to paths.
Simon Greenfield, co-owner of specialist nursery Trehane, says C. x williamsii is the best choice for those living further north. It does well even on north-facing walls and overhung with trees. C. x williamsii ‘Night Rider’ is a hybrid with dark-red semi-double flowers and little dark green leaves – a handsome combination on a compact bush – while ‘Elegant Beauty’ AGM is ideal for shade and has long arching stems good for training up wires on a north-facing wall.
\'Quintessence\' is one of the only low-growing forms. Photo: Sarah Morgan
Many who want a white flower go for C. ‘Cornish Snow’ AGM, the best-selling new hybrid. Its lax informality makes it rather sprawling so it needs room to grow well. For confined spaces, Simon has found C. transnokoensis AGM is better. The buds creep up the flower stems and open into single-white flowers from December to March. It has an elegant open habit, and in April the young leaves are bronze coloured. Another white hybrid, C. ‘Quintessence’, is one of the few camellias that is really low-growing (to just 60cm) and scented.
For a pop of scarlet, however, try C. ‘Free Spirit’, one of Simon’s favourite hybrids, with intricate symmetrical detailing to its flowers, which bloom from January to April.
Camellia japonica \'Takanini\' is extremely long-flowering. Photo: Sarah Morgan
It’s best to plant camellias in spring or autumn with some leaf mould or farmyard manure incorporated into the planting hole. They need acid soil. If it’s not acid enough, it is best to grow them in containers filled with an ericaceous or peat-based compost, and watered with rainwater rather than tap water.
The International Camellia Society advises not to plant too deeply. Camellias need air around the neck of the plants, where the stem joins the root system, so check after planting and firming in. Camellias need plenty of water, especially between June and October when the flower buds are forming, otherwise they may not form or drop off.
You can be brutal with camellias when it comes to pruning – they don’t seem to mind. Prune after the flowers but before new growth.
Visit the National Collection at www.mountedgcumbe.gov.uk and find great ranges of camellias from www.blofieldnurseries.co.uk and www.trehane.co.uk