‘Valentine’s Day’, with its enormous ruffled and veined flowers, is typical of the showy appeal of Camellia reticulata hybrids. Photo - Craig Wall
The Glamour girls
If Camellia japonicas are the stately queens of winter then Camellia reticulata are the cheer girls that dance us into spring. They are hard to find, but by no means shy, with gorgeous flowers like big ruffled skirts. Linda Ross takes a peep.
China’s Yunnan province is the home of many of our favourite garden plants: magnolia, peony, cherry blossom, rhododendron, lily and clematis. Within this amazing landscape there is also a centuries-old, scattered forest of Camellia reticulata. The Chinese know these flowers variously as Nine Hearts, Precious Pearls, Purple Gown and Butterfly Wings. Flowering coincides with Chinese New Year so they symbolise wealth and prestige. They have long been cultivated in Yunan’s monastery gardens.
The plant has had a fascinating journey around the world. The first reticulata to leave China went to Japan in 1695. The second went to England in 1820, where it flowered six years later in the glasshouse of Thomas Carey Palmer in Bromley. It was named after its importer, the East Indiaman ‘Captain Rawes’. The excitement created by this flower inspired a handful of plant collectors to venture into the wilds of Yunnan and Sichuan. One of these was the plant collector Robert Fortune. In 1946 Fortune returned to England with a collection of plants that included a deep-pink, formal, double Camellia reticulata, which was later named ‘Robert Fortune’.
The incredible blooms of Camellia reticulata are best displayed in float bowls or on plates and platters as flowers picked on long stems fall off quickly. Styling - Linda Ross. Photo - Craig Wall
Western plant breeders bred the newly found C. reticulata with C. japonica and a new family of magnificent flowers was developed. Meanwhile, as China fell into chaos following the opium wars and the breakdown of the last dynasty, the monastery and private gardens that had grown reticulata also fell into ruin.
In 1980 105 surviving cultivars of C. reticulata were located in Kunming, the capital of Yunan province. Ironically, one that was not found was the first that had travelled to England, ‘Captain Rawes’. This was subsequently returned to its country of origin, and named ‘Guixia’ meaning ‘Returned Cloud’. Most of the 105 were then shipped around the world to act as parents for the next generation of camellias.
‘Dr Clifford Parkes’ makes a sensational spring display at the front door, trimmed to create a lollipop effect. Unlike many Camellia reticulata hybrids this one is happy growing in morning sun. Styling - Linda Ross. Photo - Craig Wall
C. reticulata hybrids are some of the loveliest and largest flowers in the horticultural world. Flowers are massive: some are literally as large as dinner plates, up to 25cm across. Flowers have a ruffle of petals, and come in rich reds, deep pinks and crimsons. These beauties flower later and longer than other camellias, blooming between early May and late September. Most varieties bloom for two months. The large flowers become even larger as the tree matures, and blooms keep on expanding after they are picked.
As befits something so lovely, reticulatas do require a little more care in planting and placement than their smaller cousins. They prefer more sun than japonicas, though most don’t like morning sun. They require protection from strong winds and rich, well-drained soil with plenty of humus. They are better in subtropical zones, where other camellias often languish, than in cooler regions. They grow into more open trees, about 3-5m tall, and need more space around them as they spread. Foliage is deeply veined and leathery rather than glossy. They tend to drop quite a lot of leaves just before the new spring growth spurt. The new growth needs to be protected against leaf-chewing insects, which can spoil the display.
Unlike sasanqua and japonica, theses camellias do not respond well to excessive pruning. Reticulata are usually grafted onto sasanqua rootstock to create hardier, more adaptable plants, and it is wise to pay the extra for a grafted specimen. Garden uses of the glorious reticulata include as feature trees, woodland plants and privacy hedges.
'Ellie's Girl' and 'Dr Clifford Parkes'. Styling - Linda Ross. Photo - Craig Wall
Two-spotted mites (ribbed tea mite): this pest is common in dry, warm gardens, especially those that are drought-affected. They produce grey streaks either side of the mid-rib of leaves between November and March. Control is necessary to prevent the disfiguring of the leaves. Water foliage to keep leaves moist, and spray with Eco Oil or PestOil during summer, or with Natrasoap early in summer.
Aphids: these sucking insects are most damaging during spring when they cause new growth to become twisted and reduced in size. They need to be removed as they can lead to sooty black mould. Control with either pyrethrum sprays, such as Confidor and MaxGuard, or with Conquer. Oil sprays will also deter aphids if used regularly.
Scale: gardeners are increasingly finding several types of scale insects on camellias and these should be controlled to avoid yellowing leaves, damage to leaf surfaces, disfigured foliage and the appearance of sooty mould. Control with Eco Oil, PestOil or Eco Neem.
Where to buy
Camellia Grove Nursery
8 Cattai Ridge Road, Glenorie, NSW
(02) 9652 1200 www.camelliagrove.com.au
Or online at www.camelliasrus.com.au/reticulatas
Picked camellias thanks to Bill Flemings at ‘Elegans’, Dural.
Red fibreglass pot, from www.potsonline, Dural
Bench seat, old bottles and timber stool from Doug up on Bourke.
Text: Linda Ross