IN THE GARDEN | Romantic camellias

Memorable plants have exquisite blooms and tea is even made from leaves of one species

There are flowers and plants whose first encounters are so memorable they will ever be associated with the places where you first saw them.

One such memory was the exquisite pink bloom of the camellia shrub in flower.

It was at this time, many years ago in Champagne Castle Hotel gardens in the Drakensburg. 

The camellia species hail from Southeast Asia. There are 100 to 150 of them.

The most common and mundane of which we appreciate daily for just its leaves brewed as a tea made from Camellia sinensis.

All teas including black, white, green, oolong, pu’erh and yellow are made from this single species. 

Camellias grown for their flowers which add charm to the winter garden have an old-world appeal.

When the camellia is not in flower it continues to play a vital role in the garden as an evergreen with its dense glossy leaves.

The foliage is also sought after by flower arrangers as it provides a long-lasting foil in a vase of cut flowers. 

The romantic waxy flowers are borne on beautiful elegant evergreen shrubs which are sometimes the size of small trees, making them suitable subjects for smaller gardens. 

They flower from autumn through winter into early spring.

The shape and size of the flowers depends on the variety, growing conditions and climate.

They may be single, semi-double, peony or anemone form, rose form or double. 

Colours range from white, white flushed pink, white striped rose pink, crimson, dark red, salmon red, deep orchid pink, golden yellow and others.

Camellias may be grown in most areas of the country, except regions of severe frost, high humidity or very dry conditions. 

They mostly enjoy semi-shaded areas in the garden with well-composted, damp soil. The south side of the house serves them best. 

Camellias are thirsty plants and need to be watered throughout the year — especially in seasons where there is not much rainfall.

Autumn flowering camellia sasanqua is more tolerant of the sun and will grow in the sun as well as the semi-shade.

Its flower petals are fluted or ruffled which surround golden stamens.

Some have a delicate fragrance. More tolerant of sun than others — grow in sun or semi-shade.

As a plant, its tall slender shape is ideal for planting where it fulfils the role of sentinel duty at entrances or at the start of a staircase. 

Winter flowering camellia japonica is most commonly seen in older established gardens.

This is a bold upright shrub with large rounded leaves. It offers the best range of colours, flower shapes and sizes.

Its flower petals may be in the form of large rosettes which may be of a single layer or have peony-like ruffled blooms which are produced until early spring.

Flower colours are white, pink, red or bi-coloured. Camellia japonica prefers a position in semi-shade. It flowers until early spring. 

Autumn flowering camellia sasanqua is the most sun tolerant of this plant.

It bears dainty, fluted or ruffled petals which surround golden stamens. Some emit a sweet fragrance.

It may be grown in the sun or semi-shade in less harsh climates.

It lends itself to being trimmed into a hedge or topiary. 

Spring flowering Camellia reticulata is the fastest growing variety with a strong, open and tree-like form.

It has huge ruffled blooms in white, pink and red. In cooler climates this camellia grows in full sun but need shade from afternoon sun in hot regions.

Growing camellias 

Contrary to what its pretty delicate appeal suggests, camellias are not difficult to grow.

Camellias make ideal bed mates to azaleas as they enjoy the same growing conditions with slightly acidic soil and have similarly shallow root systems. 

Choose a site which is protected from the wind without early morning sun, preferably with filtered sun for the rest of the day. 

For best results prepare the beds with well-draining, composted soil that is slightly acidic in a cool damp position. (Add peat or acidic compost to effect this).

A south- or east-facing position house serves it best where it will be protected from the harshness of the sun. 

Before planting immerse the plant in a bucket of water — growing bag and all.

Dig a hole double its width and one-and-a-half the depth of the bag. 

Take care not to plant it too deeply. After planting lay a stick across the top of the soil of the plant to make sure it is level with the ground surrounding it. 

Don’t feed the plant until it has flowered. Otherwise, it will just develop more foliage at the expense of the flowers.

Avoid feeding the plant close to the trunk as it will cause it to burn.

Growing camellias in pots 

Camellias grow well in pots and may serve well if you need to create a container acidic soil if you don’t have it naturally in your garden. 

Choose a pot with good drainage which is large enough to contain the plant’s root ball with space around its perimeter.

A very large pot might cause the soil to become waterlogged. 

Choose a site to place it which is sheltered and has the desired light conditions. 

Prune the camellias after the last flowers fall in spring or early summer to promote healthy bushy growth.

Just remove branches that have become untidy. This only needs to be done every few years. 

In the Garden is written by feature writer, garden enthusiast and former teacher Julia Smith, who has returned home to live in Chintsa East. The column aims to inform novice and accomplished gardeners  how to make the most of their green patches.


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