Camellias are decorative
A Classic Garden Plant for the inland South West
Whilst exploring an old mill town in the Blackwood Valley, the other day, I noticed a rather dilapidated timber cottage at the end of the road. It was in a large clearing with tall forest trees as a backdrop. Standing alone some distance from the front of the house was a large, solid-looking, dark green shrub. Its otherwise severe look was softened by the fact that it was covered by large bright red blooms. Even from a distance it was easy to see it was a camellia, in fact a Camellia japonica in its full winter splendour.
Quite clearly the camellia bush had been there for many years with little attention and yet it was producing a beautiful crop of blooms. It was obviously surviving and doing quite well. I have seen many examples of fine, old camellias thriving alongside deserted farm houses, or standing with a group of gnarled and venerable fruit trees, the last reminders of a once thriving farm garden.
Camellia japonica, for those not familiar with this plant, is the most commonly grown member of the Camellia genus. With its glossy, dark green leaves and contrasting red or white waxy flowers it can grow to the size of a small tree. It is related to the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, and was introduced to England by the mid-eighteenth century, possibly as a substitute for the tea plant. A living tea plant had been keenly sought by traders so that they could grow tea themselves rather than import tea in the dried form from China or other parts of Asia.
The decorative camellia originally came from China where it had long been cultivated, but from early times it had been grown in Japan, hence its botanical name. Revered in both countries, partly because of its winter-flowering characteristic, it was often found in temple gardens. It grows best in a mild winter climate usually on slopes or in tall evergreen forests where it can have protection from the hot summer sun and from winter storms. It dislikes soils with lime, preferring acid soils with surface leaf litter.
Further north around Perth in the sandy soils, camellias can be grown with some success given moderate summer water and preferably protection from the hot afternoon sun. However, here in the heavier, clay-based soils of the central South West, the camellia will succeed even in full sun for most of the day. In Memorial Park at Bridgetown a half-circle of camellias to the west of the War Memorial manages to grow and flower quite well with limited care. Given a little attention and a modicum of summer moisture in a well-kept garden the camellia will excel.
Camellia japonica is thus well suited to growing in many parts of the South West. It is puzzling to see that it is not more widely grown. It gets very few pests or diseases and it has beautiful flowers. Perhaps fashions have changed or the plant is seen as not being sufficiently waterwise. Yet once established in a good position, especially if sheltered from the hot afternoon sun, it can and does grow very well.
One of its characteristics is that it is a relatively slow grower. To reach tree size it might take fifty years or more. This modern life might require plants to grow fast, to give instant gratification. However, it is often the case that the faster a plant grows, the shorter its life span. Take the wattles - fast yes, but after fifteen years or less, the wattle is ready to fall over, or split in a storm and be renewed by seeds or suckers. The camellia on the other hand is a slow and steady grower and has a certain elegance of habit. It will not become gangly, nor likely to drop branches in a storm. It is an excellent garden plant with barbecue flame tests showing that it is not inflammable.
Plant a camellia or two this spring and enjoy the blooms for years to come.