Consider the camellia: a handsome, hardy option for year-round colour

A plant with an off-season is a liability in a courtyard or balcony garden that relies on pots and planters. There is no place to hide: everything has to shine, all the time. The danger for such a garden is that it can look not just good all year but the same all year, with a sad dearth of seasonal thrills.

Camellias are a handsome option for year-round potted good looks and big winter thrills. Being shallow-rooted, they are happy in pots. Bill Parker, from Camellias R Us, which grows more than 200 varieties of camellia at its nursery in Sydney’s Glenorie, says the key to success for potted camellias is well-drained potting mix, ideally one formulated for growing azaleas and camellias, and the right position.

The ‘Fairy Wand’ (left) and the ‘Fairy Blush’, two hybrid miniature varieties.Credit:Camellias R Us

“Camellias need protection from hot afternoon sun which can overheat the root ball, and though they grow well in either shade and sun, flowering is best in filtered light,” he says.

The showiest camellias are the big-flowered japonicas, and even bigger reticulatas, but my preference for potted camellias is the smaller-flowered varieties, so that the blooms, the plant and the pot are all in proportion. Fairy Wand is a lovely hybrid miniature with rosy pink-red flowers; Fairy Blush is even prettier, with pink-shaded white flowers that look a bit like a crabapple or cherry blossom and have a delicate perfume.

‘High fragrance’, a variety with amped up scent.Credit:Camellias R Us

If fragrance is important, search out the hybrid High Fragrance which has bumped up the fragrance of the species Camellia lutchuensis, and added it to medium-sized, informal double blooms of pale pink.

My favourite small-flowered camellias are the Higo, which take their name from a region of southern Kyushu in Japan. For men of the samurai class in the Edo period, growing these exquisite camellias was an accomplishment ranking alongside literature, painting and calligraphy. Hinomaru is one of the most famous of the Higos, so-called because the brilliant red petals are like the rising sun on the Japanese flag.

The ‘Hinomaru’, the writer’s favourite type of camellia.Credit:Camellias R Us

Camellias should be fertilised in September, after the flowers have finished, says Parker. He uses slow-release pellets that last eight or nine months, by which time the plants will have budded up nicely and will need no further help over the flowering period. If he’s feeling generous, he adds a topping of something like Dynamic Lifter in April.

Camellias are unbothered by pests or diseases, and need pruning only to keep them to size and shape, or to thin them out to allow the flowers to be seen more clearly.

Find more camellia inspiration at the NSW Camellia Research Society’s Annual Camellia Show next weekend at Ravenswood School in Gordon. Don’t leave the neighbourhood without a visit to nearby Eryldene, the home and garden of the international 20th century camellia expert Professor EG Waterhouse which will be open Sunday July 10.

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