Camellias: Harbingers of Spring

Spring arrives a little earlier in Cornwall than elsewhere in England. The far South West is blessed with a mild, maritime climate which ensures the county rarely experiences extremes in temperature, although they are not unheard of. In the summer Cornwall never feels quite as warm as elsewhere and in the winter frosts seldom bother gardeners, at least not near the coast. Such benign conditions invite all sorts of exotics to flourish as if they were native to our shores: it’s not unusual to stumble upon groves of New Zealand pittosporum (Pittosporum tenuifolium) or Chilean myrtle (Myrtus luma / Luma apiculata), or to discover a woodland pond choked with Brazilian giant rhubarb (Gunnera manicata). Montbretia (Crocosmia masoniorum) from South Africa makes its home in Cornish hedges and ditches, whilst Agapanthus africanus might even spring from sand dunes in the Scilly Isles. Banksias, proteas, aeoniums and phormiums can often be spotted, but the most common interloper is the camellia, originally from from the Himalayas east to Japan and Indonesia, which can be found growing in all but the most unloved Cornish gardens.

The picturesque village of Gulval near Penzance enjoys an elevated position overlooking Mounts Bay. Facing south, the fields above the village are used to cultivate daffodils, whilst those just a stone’s throw away are home to the National Dahlia Collection. The farmland in this area is blessed with the perfect conditions for cultivating flowers, although closer to the sea an ugly stretch of supermarkets and warehouses blights the coastline and obscures the view back towards the village. Situated at Gulval’s heart, where one might normally expect to find the open expanse of a village green, is a solid granite church. The building is dedicated to a 6th Century saint named Gulval, the original form of which was probably Welvela or Wolvela, names which sound like brands of vitamin and hosiery respectively. Either way I am sure he or she was devout and deserving of such a beautiful memorial.

Gulval’s churchyard is defined by a roughly circular wall punctuated by sturdy lychgates. A road runs unbroken around the perimeter. Inside is a treasure trove of plants, including a spectacular podocarpus (I suspect P. salignus), several stands of bamboo, Chusan palms and a number of mature, healthy camellias. On the day after my birthday, January 13th, every camellia was in bloom, with signs of greater abundance to come. The churchyard is well maintained and must be even prettier in spring when the sward is peppered with primroses. Gulval is not far from great gardens at Godolphin, St Michael’s Mount, Trengwainton and Trewidden. I suspect many of these beautiful camellias were gifted by those estates, or acquired from the nurseries that supplied them. The history of Camellia growing in Britain is intricately entwined with the county of Cornwall thanks to combination of the mild climate, high soil acidity and the attentions of ardent plant collecting families such as the Williams’ at Caerhays Castle and the Bolithos at Trengwainton and Trewidden. By crossing Camellia saluenensis with Camellia japonica John Charles Williams created the hardy Camellia × williamsii hybrids, such as ‘St Ewe’, which are vigorous, floriferous and more tolerant of cold than some of the species.

When one spies a camellia flowering on a dull, dank midwinter’s day it is easy to appreciate their appeal. For the most part camellias grow slowly to form small-to-medium-sized bushes clothed in glossy, green foliage. This neat habit ticks a lot of boxes for gardeners, since little or no pruning is required and the plant looks presentable year-round. Flowers can appear at any time from late autumn until late spring, depending on the species or variety, but often start appearing in late winter when very few shrubs provide serious colour. It’s the sheer size, delicacy and voluptuousness of the bloom that dazzles me. It seems wrong that any flower so tender and flamboyant should be capable of surviving in winter. In that respect camellias are remarkable and worthy of greater admiration.

Unlike rhododendrons, which also insist on high soil acidity, many camellias will grow happily in a large pot for a long period, making them suitable for almost any garden. I have grown a number of camellias over the years and they’ve always lasted well provided they are kept regularly watered and fed. Moisture is essential since summer drought can cause buds and leaves to drop, limiting the floral display the following season. Originally considered to be too tender for outdoor cultivation (hence the gracious camellia houses at Chiswick House and Wollaton Hall), modern camellia hybrids are now hardy enough in most of the country. Early buds and flowers may be blighted by frost, especially if cold is accompanied by rain. White-flowered camellias have a tendency to hold onto their spent flowers when they turn rust-brown, which is can ruin the countenance of a plant in full bloom.

Planted in the garden and left to mature, camellias can reach a considerable size, so they should be planted a good distance apart to avoid the heart-breaking possibility of having to thin out established plants later on. Camellias wont tolerate lime, so in areas like East Kent, where I live, the only option is pot culture. Use a good, moisture-retentive ericaceous compost and feed regularly with a liquid feed formulated for acid-loving plants.

As harbingers of spring there is no shrub to rival the camellia for colour or extravagance. Indeed if one were to award to epithet of ‘Christmas Rose’ to any plant, it ought to be the camellia rather than the hellebore. To my mind no garden, great or humble, ought to be without a camellia, either planted in a pot or border close to the house, as a backdrop to a mixed border, or dotted throughout a woodland garden. The value they offer the gardener and admirer is beyond measure. TFG.

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30 thoughts on “Camellias: Harbingers of Spring

  1. Is the Chusan palm Trachicarpus fortuneii? I know it as the windmill palm. The Kumaon palm, Trachicarpus takil, is what I had known as the Chusan palm. I can not keep the names straight, but I determined that what I thought was a Chusan palm was not the Trachicarpus takil, and that the Trachicarpus takil is still rare here.
    We started growing Camellia japonica, sasanqua and reticulata back in the early 1990s, and Camellia japonica and sasanqua are now some of our main crops. Camellia reticulata was never all that popular, so is mostly discontinued.

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  2. One of my favorite plants to use as a shrub here in Houston. I use sasanquas because the do better in our hot humid summers and are generally smaller. They actually do well in the entire south US. I have two white ones just outside my office window that have been in bloom since early December : ) Flowers in winter are a treat!

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    1. They are indeed. It’s been particularly gloomy since Christmas – not many bright days. Whites and pinks really show up well during these dark months. I have never grown C. sasanqua, but I know they appreciate warmth and can start blooming in Autumn.

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  3. I have a C x w ‘Donation’ growing in a pot since 1990 and repotted 4 times. It keeps going somehow and flowers well despite being in an easy facing pgosition. To
    A surprise today was finding a flower bud on Bulbine frutescens.
    Hope you had a very Happy Birthday.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I did, many thanks for the card! Bulbine will flower all year round in flushes – at least that’s what it does in my garden.

      C. ‘Donation’ is a classic. I don’t like the name at all, but there must be a story behind it. I am sure a slow and steady sequence of repotting has helped your camellia to flourish. Dan

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  4. As a gardener I always slightly resent my January birthday. It seems absolutely the least fortuitous month in which to request some horticultural delight from my nearest and dearest! Perhaps I should ask for some of your beautifully curated and described camellias however? But do you ever wish your birthday wasn’t in this most cruel, cold, indoor and skint month?😊

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    1. Yes I do Julia, all the time! No-one has any money, everyone’s doing dry January except me, and most people are partied out. I have often thought about having a second Birthday, like the Queen. I think I would have it in May or August. How about you? Dan

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  5. Dan/ The Frustrated Gardener,
    Thank you for your beautiful and often times funny posts. These Camillas are absolutely lovely but unfortunately would not grow in my tropical garden. I hope you have as much success with the loads of bulbs you and your partner planted last fall.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Your notes on the gardens of Cornwall are tempting me to make a visit there to see some of the spectacular gardens. I was lucky enough to receive the book “Woodland Gardening” by Kenneth Cox at Christmas where Camellias obviously get a lot of attention so very pleased you are highlighting them. They are an outstanding group of plants that are worthy of our closer inspection and appreciation.
    Perhaps you will be writing further posts on your botanical discoveries in Cornwall!? Thank you Dan.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I shall David. I have written quite a few over the years as I visit fairly regularly. A lot of Cornish gardens close for the winter so I shall be glad when it’s spring again and they are resplendent with magnolias, camellias and rhododendrons. Dan

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  7. I must make an effort to visit this churchyard. I always avoid the centre of Gulval as there is no parking, but your Camellias are so inviting! Plus I love a wander around headstones. Hope you had a lovely birthday Dan, a shame we couldn’t provide you with nicer weather, but it has been pretty gloomy all winter 😦

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  8. Here we have been having a warm January but the next few days it is to dip into the single digit cold temps which is one of the reasons why Camellias don’t do well here. I love that photo of the camillia entwined with the palm. It looks absolutely Southern. Like a warm breeze just swept through the livingroom. Happy belated Birthday. I hope you enjoyed the fragrance and lovely blooms on your birthday. And yes, I often think of camillias as roses. When I am perusing photos and not reading the text I have often mistaken a Camillia bloom as a rose bloom.

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    1. I’m mainly a fan of the single ones myself. I love those clumps of golden yellow stamens. My own camellia, which I grow in a pot, is covered in buds but a long way from flowering. It’s a double and the blooms are enormous. I don’t recall why I bought it now, but I think I believed it was a single variety.

      Meanwhile I had a lovely birthday, but it seems like a distant memory now!

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  9. I do not know what happened with the typos in my reply, that was not the paragraph I thought I had posted! The Clematis is definitely in an East rather than Easy position.Sorry!

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  10. On the subject of January birthdays, I think I would ideally prefer to have mine in May. The hedgerows here in South Devon are a joyous celebration from the beginning of May, a perfect time for a gardener’s birthday 🌱

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  11. Beautiful photos inspiring me to have a go with a camellia but, as I am yet to be hooked on them, may I add my thoughts on birthdays? Despite mine falling in mid July I still insist on having an official birthday on a convenient date of my choosing too and I cannot recommend the practice too highly. Maybe you could celebrate your half birthday in July too?

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  12. Your warning against planting too closely together reminded me that camellia hedges are common in Japan and a wonderful sight. They are quite practical as hedging being dense, evergreen and flowering. Happy belated birthday – my son’s is January, my husband’s February so I totally support the notion of half birthdays!

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