Soon after we started our garden in Blaricum around 30 years ago, we planted two Camellia japonica hybrids – “Dr Tinsley” and “Brushfield’s Yellow”. These moved with us to OpdeHaar and are now 3m shrubs between the greenhouse and the garage, near the visitor centre, and give us a fantastic early spring show each year. They are not exactly in light shade – their heads are in the sun but they do have a very cool root run. One of the first planned plantings after clearing our woods was indeed the camellia collection and one of the walks between ditches is devoted to a mix of Camellia japonica and Camillia x williamsii hybrids which have recently been augmented by some Ackerman hybrids i.e. those having Camellia Oleifera as parents for enhanced cold hardiness. That said despite a couple prolonged freezes associated with famous dutch “elfstedentocht” skating marathon when all lakes including the Ijsselmeer freeze over we never lost a camellia. Hopefully this gives a lie to any talk that still remains that camellias can only be successfully when raised as plants when they retire into protection of a greenhouse in winter. Our plants receive no other protection than being mostly planted in the confines of the woodland where desiccating easterly continental winds from Siberia are broken and trees provide light shelter from heavy frost and shade from early morning sun. Buds, particularly about to burst, need this latter protection otherwise too rapid thawing will cause them to abort and not flower.
All the talk of global warming and undoubtedly milder winters not to mention persistent tempting by my friend Hans Prins has prompted us to venture most recently to experiment with autumn flowering Camellia sasanqua, Camellia hiemalis and Camellia vernalis hybrids. In contrast to Camellia japonica and Camellia x williamsii these need warm sunny positions and I am trying near our tropical border. It is too early to comment on them yet but the added attraction of scented flowers is undoubtly appealing. Suffice it to say that visitors will now find camellias all around our gardens and I do not doubt that our collection will continue to expand. Generally speaking camellias share the likes and dislikes of rhododendrons as far as cultivation is concerned – acid soils and light feeding up to the longest day to encourage next year’s bud development. Avoid encouraging late growth by later nitrogen- rich feeds that can lead to frost sensitive growth. The surfer of the internet will find some excellent information and for a general review I would recommend “Camellias” by Geoff Bryant http://www=ezinearticles.com/?Camellias&id=1784. However, this review does not give much detail on how the pioneer hybridisers set about their work and so I would suggest that you also download George Wright’s “Camellia Hybrids – what, when why”. Between them, these articles provide you with background information that will enhance your enjoyment and appreciation of any camellia collection.
All the photos were taken in our garden. Click on the photos for a larger image and a slideshow
Work on enhancing the horticultural properties of
Work on enhancing the horticultural properties of camellia hybrids is going on around the world. In summary, at least four characteristics are the focus of various programmes, these are:
- improving cold-hardiness
- extending the colour range (yellow pigmentation)
- scented hybrids
- extending the bloom period.
The earliest step to improving cold hardiness was taken almost accidentally when J.C. Williams noted that seedlings of Camellia saluensis had spontaneously hybridised with Camellia japonica. The progeny unexpectedly displayed improved cold tolerance. However, the topic of cold tolerance is nowadays most frequently associated with the work of William L. Ackerman who has used Camellia oleifera in a very extensive and long-running hybridisation programme. He has recently updated an account of his studies on the internet for the International Camellia Society in a paper entitled “Camellias for cold climates”. Camellia oleifera itself has slightly scented white flowers but is grown for the oil produced from its seeds. It is extremely cold-hardy. Of interest to us in The Netherlands, where extremes of winter cold of the type experienced in New England (USA) are not the case, are probably the hybrids of Camellia oleifera which are otherwise quite tender species. For example, Camellia sasanqua itself probably will not tolerate prolonged temperatures much below -8°C but the hybrids will.
The traditional Camellia japonica and Camellia x williamsii hybrids have two important general limitations. Their colour range is from white, through shades of pink to red and the vast majority, even now, are unscented. Balanced against this is the fact that they have an almost infinite number of beautiful flower forms. (I often reflect on how similar this “balance” is to what we find in the large flowering or hybrid tea roses as far as scent is concerned.) While scented Camellia japonica hybrids have appeared over the years, e.g. “Scented Red”, “Scentsation” and “High Fragrance”, they have yet to make a real impact in areas such as our own, probably because they tend to be somewhat more tender than most other hybrids. Many of the species camellia including the tea bush, Camellia sinensis, have fragrant, often single flowers and they do hybridise with Camellia japonica. Unfortunately, they generally reduce the cold tolerance of the resulting hybrid. Probably for this reason, one finds that a lot of the breeding programmes devoted to scented hybrids are in milder areas of the world such as New Zealand, Japan and the southern USA. Jim Finlay in New Zealand is one, noted specialist. In Japan, Camellia lutchuensis forms the parent for the numerous scented hybrids. As usual, a diligent search of the internet will reveal much information
As just stated, colour range of the hardy Camellia japonica and Camellia x williamsii hybrids are in the white/pink/red spectrum. At the risk of incurring some irritation, I would contend that hybrids such as “Brushfield’s Yellow” are really more accurately a cream colour than yellow – they certainly are not buttercup yellow! In S.W. China there is a yellow, rather tender species, Camellia chrysantha, that is being used in hybridisation work. Other yellow species have been noted, such as “Dahlonega” syn. “Golden Anniversary” and one can probably be optimistic and state that it is probably just a question of time before breeders extend this aspect of camellia flowers. It goes without saying that hybridisers often do not/cannot entirely separate the topics of hardiness, scent and colour, as you will have realised. The ultimate commercial success would naturally combine all these with a beautiful form of flower. Clifford RT. Parks has an article on the internet entitled “The Acquisition, Maintenance and Breeding Potential of Camellia Germplasm” which offers an impression of considerations associated with breeding programmes.
In our neck of the woods, most gardeners would regard the camellia as a spring to early summer flowering shrub and, indeed, this is the case for most of the hybrids that we purchase in The Netherlands. However, as I write these lines on New Year’s Day 2007, I have a tiny Camellia “Polar Ice” that is sporting two flowers – you will find this described in the Ackerman reference in the section on cold hardiness and it gets the winter flowering from Camellia sasanqua in its genes. Camellia sasanqua is one of the three species occurring in Japan – the others are Camellia japonica and lutchuensis (highly scented) – and is autumn flowering. It has been used by Ackerman and other hybridisers to give us acceptably hardy autumn and winter flowering hybrids. For those wanting to study this species in more detail, I would suggest a visit to sazanka.org.
OpdeHaar Camellia collection
As a general rule of thumb, I aim to keep our camellia in groups rather than having them too dispersed. The reason is that they tend to flower at a time when many other shrubs are basically waking up from their winter sleep and are still a bit dishevelled. In practical terms, we can have the area around the camellia all spruced up for visitors so that the camellia can really strut their stuff. Conversely, they can be left in peace by the summer visitors when other plants take over the display. If you keep this in mind, then a visit to our camellias is rather easily managed and a listing of the more than 50 varieties in our collection in four locations in the gardens is given below. Simply entering the word “camellia” into a search engine such as Google and the hybrid name enclosed in inverted commas will yield photos and full descriptions – I therefore give only the hybrid names here.
At the time of writing in the winter of 2007, I have a number of camellia in pots that I still need to plant out. These are only small but, for completeness, they are Camellia Japonica “Bob’s Tinsie”, Bokuhan”, “Berenice Boddy” and “Furo An”. The others are “Narumigata”, and Camellia x Hiemalis “Dazzler”.
Availablility and price
The propagation and hybridisation of camellia has not been a tradition in The Netherlands and this has been reflected in their very high price. In fact, virtually all of our early plantings were with shrubs that we brought from Devon and Cornwall in UK. A favourite stop still is The Duchy of Cornwall Nursery in Loswithiel (http://www.duchyofcornwallnursery.co.uk/ ) and I would recommend any visitor to this beautiful part of England to include it in their itinerary. While prices are still undoubtedly higher in The Netherlands, they are thankfully coming down – relatively speaking. The prices in Euros have remained fairly constant over recent years and the choice from nurseries such as De Groene Prins is expanding rapidly. Esveld in Boskoop supply camellia varieties and also stock a selection of Sasanqua hybrids.