A dash of realism is needed for successful cultivation of these temperamental beauties, as Anna Pavord found from bitter experience
Camellias are like computers. If you create exactly the right programme, they will whirr away with no problems. If there is a tiny maladjustment in the schedule, they go to pieces. After struggling for years to persuade them that they like my basically alkaline garden, I now grow a few in tubs and let the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew astound me with the rest.
The earliest outdoor varieties have been blooming for the past month between the Victoria Gate and the Lion Gate at Kew. They have also been lighting up masses of town gardens, seeming to do particularly well in shady, rather dark basements. Camellias are seductive creatures, but before you succumb completely, ask yourself a few important questions.
First of all: soil. Have you got what it takes to produce a healthy plant with shiny dark green foliage and plenty of flowers? Camellias like an acid soil between pH5 and 6.5. I thought, by excavating a 4ft x 4ft pit and filling it with the best acid mixture I could make, that I could fool my camellias into thinking they were at home.
For a few years it worked, with the help of doses of Sequestrene. Then gradually they began to mope, until I dug them up and gave them to a friend with a classic piece of acid woodland. Lining the pit with polythene may have put off the day of reckoning. The best camellia soils are not only acid, but also rich in humus. Leaf mould is ideal.
The second big question is where to plant. In the wild, camellias grow under the protection of a high forest canopy, and the principle of sheltered shade is one to hang on to in the garden. They will stand up to an occasional gale, but hate continuous draughts. The soil needs to be moist, but not soggy. A north-facing wall, in a sheltered courtyard, will be ideal. Avoid a position, such as an east-facing wall, where early sun may catch frost- bound blooms and brown them off.
Having found the right spot, the next hurdle will be to select a variety that is more likely to thrive than not. Of the several thousand kinds available, more than half will be too tender to grow successfully outside in the UK. A different half have such violent colours that you would not want them anyway.
Generally, go for varieties of Camellia x williamsii and C japonica. C sasanqua and C reticulata types will be better under glass. Then check flower types, sorted into groups such as single, semi-double, anemone form, full peony form and so on. The more complicated sorts are unlikely to weather well outside. Whites are touchier than reds about frost, wind and wet. For real choice, go to a specialist nursery.
In the north of the country, tough C x williamsii types such as 'J C Williams' (single pale pink) will be the safest choice. Other good ones are 'Brigadoon' (semi-double deep pink), the faithful 'Donation' (semi- double soft pink), Donation's daughter 'Rose Parade' (deep rose peony form) or 'St Ewe' (bright rose-pink single). 'Donation' is the most popular camellia in Britain, in flower from late February through until late April. It is an upright and rather sparse plant, but very free-flowering. 'Leonard Messel' (deep pink, loose peony form) is another popular type, half C x williamsii, half the looser, laxer C reticulata.
A camellia stops growing around the end of July. It then settles to the business of producing flower buds - or not, as the case may be. This is a cause of great frustration to camellia owners. Dryness at the roots will certainly inhibit the process, and it is vital to keep camellias well watered between July and September. Too liberal a hand with nitrogen feeds may also inhibit the production of flower buds.
Some varieties, such as 'Bow Bells' and 'Charity', are notably more free- flowering than others. C x williamsii types are the most reliable, although some, such as 'Elsie Jury' and 'Fragrant Pink', need sun to set and ripen their flower buds. Varieties of C japonica may be shy to flower when young, but give a good display after four or five years.
The flower is named after George Kamel, born in 1661 in Brunn, central Czechoslovakia. He was a Jesuit priest and set up pharmacies for the Jesuits in several of their overseas outposts. Camellias first flowered in England in 1739, when two red-flowered C japonica bloomed in the hothouse at Lord Petre's garden at Thorndon Hall in Essex. The hothouse treatment killed the plants, but fortunately not before the head gardener, James Gordon, had taken cuttings and raised them in his Mile End nursery.
In conservatories, camellias grow most happily without heat, though they will come into flower earlier if the temperature is kept at about 7-10C (45-50F). Collect rain water for them. The calcium in tap water is likely to upset them. Plants in pots should be moved outside between May and October.
If they are planted in a conservatory border, allow them to rest for about six weeks after flowering, without food or too much water. Then feed them with weak liquid fertiliser every two weeks until early August, and use the same routine for camellias growing in tubs outside. Sequestrene does not count as food; it is medicine. In open ground, scatter some dried blood round plants in April when the soil is damp, and mulch with pine needles, leaf mould or dead camellia flowers. Some swear by tea leaves. Tea bags look very drear, because the bag bit doesn't rot down.
If you have got the preliminaries right, aftercare will be minimal. Camellias don't need regular pruning, though you can snip off any lopsided shoots in February. Aphids and scale insects may cause sooty mould, which forms on the leaves under the places where the dread pests are quartered. A pesticide will see off the bugs but you may need to wash the leaves, rubbing them gently with your thumbs, to get rid of the mould.
See camellias at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, open daily, 9.30am-4pm, admission pounds 4.50; Anthony Woodland Garden, Torpoint, Cornwall, open March- Oct Mon-Sat 11am-5.30pm and Sun 2pm-5.30pm, admission pounds 2.50; The Pines, Salcombe, Devon, open tomorrow, 11am-5pm, admission pounds 2; The Magnolias, Brentwood, Essex, open Sun 29 Mar, 10am-5pm, admission pounds 1.50; East Bergholt Place, East Bergholt, Suffolk open 29 March, 2pm-5.30pm, admission pounds 2. National collections of camellias: Anthony House (see above); Mount Edgecumbe House, Cremyll, near Torpoint, Cornwall PL10 1HZ (01752 822236). 20 species, 500 cultivars. Open daily.
Buy camellias at the Trehane Camellia Nursery, Stapehill Road, Hampreston, Wimborne, Dorset BN21 7NE (01202 873490) open daily, 10am-4.30pm; send pounds 1.50 for mail order catalogue; Burncoose & Southdown Nurseries, Gwennap, Redruth, Cornwall TR16 6BJ (01209 861112) open Mon-Sat (8am-5pm), Sun, 11am-5pm; send pounds 1 for catalogue; Coghurst Nursery, Ivy House Lane, near Three Oaks, Hastings, East Sussex TN35 4NP (01424 756228), open Mon-Fri, 12-4.30pm, Sun 10am-4.30pm, send 2 x 2nd-class stamps for catalogue.
Read 'Gardening with Camellias' by New Zealand author Jim Rolfe (Godwit, pounds 25).
Join the International Camellia Society: UK representative Mr HC Short, 41 Galveston Road, East Putney, London SW15 2RZ (0181-870 6884).
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