Cornish Gardens are a delight at all times of the year.
The gentle climate, particularly in the southern coastal areas, enables gardeners in Cornwall to grow flowers and shrubs that most of Britain would struggle with in the open garden.
In spring, a visit to the gardens of Cornwall is a delight with the most glorious abundance of Camellias on display.
Camellias are a popular spring flowering shrub that thrive in an acid soil, with a pH between 5 – 6.5. The soil needs to be free draining; this is almost more important than the acidity and many camellias will grow for years in a more neutral soil if their roots are not waterlogged over the winter months. There can be a problem with nutrient take up from the soil where the pH is higher, and over time, a once healthy Camellia can suffer from chlorosis. The main symptom of which is the yellowing of the foliage, particularly along the leaf veins. Giving a liquid feed specifically for ericaceous loving plants will help, as will top dressing with a mulch for acid loving plant. This latter does not have to contain peat, there are lots of good alternatives out there, for example, ones containing bracken or pine chippings.
Camellia japonica ‘Imbricata rubra’
Whilst Cornish gardens are famed for their spring display of camellias, the first record of this evergreen shrub being grown in Britain was actually in Essex, at Thorndon Hall in the mid eighteenth century. At first, camellias were grown in ‘stove houses’, which were too hot and humid for these exotic looking plants that were not actually that exotic.
Camellia japonica ‘Tomorrow Variegated’, with a fused calyx, giving an exotic ‘double flower’ effect
Camellias originated from and can still be found growing in the wild in China, Japan and South Korea. The first camellias to be cultivated, around 5000 years ago, were tea plants in China, the shrub Camellia sinensis var sinensis. Cornwall now has its own tea plantation, at Tregothnan, where the first tea plant was planted in 1999. It makes a good brew, an essential part of a Cornish cream tea! My personal favourite is the Tregothnan Earl Grey, which is blended from Cornish tea leaves and Assam, and infused with bergamot oil. Drinking this beverage in Cornwall, I was reminded of partaking of afternoon tea at Howick, the Northumberland home of the eponymous Earl Grey.
Camellia japonica ‘grand sultan’
Now, whilst most camellias are perfectly happy in cool conditions, and don’t need winter protection, some varieties, Camellia japonica, for example, have a habit of retaining their dead and dying blooms on the bush. This high maintenance requirement gave early collectors the impression that they were tender. The only way to deal with this is to dead-head each bloom by hand, a time consuming activity. No wonder then that the lack of garden staff in the early twentieth century led to a decline in the interest of camellias.
Camellia x williamsii ‘elsie jury’
It was the role of Cornish gardens to find a solution; or rather it was the work of John Charles Williams of Caerhays. A member of the Royal Horticultural Society and fascinated with hybridisation, J.C. Williams was already growing Camellias outside at Caerhays when he crossed Camellia japonica with Camellia saluensis. This new hybrid strain, Camelia x williamsii, proved hardy and had the advantage that it dropped its flowers after blooming. Once gardens became filled with ornamental plants again after the Second World War, Camellias became popular again.
Camellia x williamsii ‘china clay’
Happy to grow in full sun or dappled shade, with glossy green leaves all tear round and a bright burst of colour in early spring, Camellias deserve to be popular. They are fairly easy maintenance is planted properly in the first place. Camellias do not need much watering once established in the border. If it is necessary, then watering them with rainwater rather than tap water, which can have a high lime content, is preferable.
Pruning is not generally required unless you need to shape up a plant or perhaps cut back where the shrub has overgrown a path. The ideal time to prune a camellia is just after flowering but immediately before the soft new growth emerges as the flowers are formed on growth put on the previous year.
Camellia japonica ‘Margaret Davis Picotee’
Surprisingly, you may think, I didn’t return with a Cornish Camellia. But then I was awed and overwhelmed by the array of Camellias en masse. It was stunning to see so many beautiful flowering shrubs laid out in these gardens. Vistas down to the sea and across to the valley formed an inspiring backdrop. Glades of camellia, rhododendron and azalea created a woodland canopy of rich green strewn with jewel like flowers.
The choice of varieties and cultivars was vast and made it too difficult to choose. Besides, it means I need to make a return journey…
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