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Gardening with Gael - Camellias winter flowers lift spirits



thumbnail Camellias IMG 1202-353I remember wondering, as I planted my first garden, how the plants would look in ten years. Would they be happy with their position, their companions and their climate? When you are young everything seems to take an age. Now that time has sped up so too has the perception of plant growth.

I recently heard a rumour that the camellias and some of the shade trees I planted at Mangawhai Beach School were going to go. I believe rumours are best confronted at the source. “Yes,” the principal told me. “Sadly we need room for many more classrooms. We hope to save the largest of the shade trees. Further planting is planned elsewhere.” They have done well those camellias. They did like their position, their companions and their climate. Right now they are blooming profusely just before their demise. In the forty years since I planted them they have provided a screen from the road. They survived droughts and lawn mowers. They provide cheerful colour in the winter months. Flowers in winter lift everyone’s spirits and camellias can be relied on to do just that.

The school camellias belong to the camellia sasanqua family. These camellias can be recognised by their smaller leaves and flowers. Extremely hardy, they tolerate full sun and can flower generously from autumn through to spring. They are often used for hedges and screens because they clip well and can form a dense hedge. Like all camellias they prefer an acid soil and mulching for the summer. They have quite shallow surface roots which enable them to be transplanted. There are some new white varieties which flower profusely.

The tea camellia belongs to the camellia sinesis family. I have written about these plants before. They have similar characteristics to sasanquas. They are flowering at present. Tiny white flowers cover most of the plants at the Block, and at the present time are covered with bees.

Camellia japonicas are the variety found in most gardens. Their leaves are larger than the sasanquas and their flowers have a variety of forms. These include a single petalled form, a double, a multi-petalled form, and a peony form with a double layer of petals around the outside and a mass of petals in the centre. There is also an anemone form which is a smaller variety of the peony and also, my favourite, the rose form which has masses of loose petals, not unlike a double hibiscus.

Camellia reticulata can be recognised by their more open habit and their enormous flowers. Tiffany, a clear rose formed pink flower and Dr Clifford Parkes, a loose red peony form are my favourites. Reticulata tend to be quite vigorous. Their glossy leaves make them extremely appealing.

There are now many camellia hybrids which are renowned for their strong growth and flower forms. Many have a perfume which is generally not associated with camellias.

Some scented hybrids include, Cinnamon Cindy, Scentuous, and Scented Gem and Scentsation.

For a small garden there is a small growing camellia with a spreading arching habit. With the centre clipped out it forms a spreading mound and covers itself with scented pink and white flowers. Aptly called ‘Quintessence’ this camellia could successfully grace any garden and also makes a great present.


Gather pine needles and use them to mulch camellias and rhododendrons. These plants both enjoy the acidity the pine needles contribute.


Tiny white flowers cover most of the plants at the Block, and at the present time are covered with bees.

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