CONSIDERING THE CAMELLIA IN A SPRING GARDEN
It is a teasing time of year – gorgeous one minute and miserable the next. If the skies are glowering and the temperature still demands a bobble hat, a clever move is to head off to one of the RHS shows in Vincent Square for a fix of Spring. This photograph of a camellia judging table from an Early Spring Show is permanently pinned to my notice board and has sustained me with its intense rainbow of pinks since 2004…
And this image of the elegant, dancing Narcissus ‘Snipe’ on the delightful Broadleigh Bulbs stand was taken on a gloomy Sunday afternoon this February. Now firmly on my bulb order list for next September, the photograph will cheer me until early 2016 when I hope to find it flowering in my own garden.
We have had some staggeringly beautiful early Spring days and the whole season seems to be moving rather fast, although farmers tell me that we are two weeks behind last year. As I set out a few days ago to visit the camellia collection at Chiswick House in West London, the view from my kitchen is hazy with promise:
I have been planning a trip to New York and feel slightly guilty as New York friends continue to endure deep winter…
… whilst I’m padding about the newly restored glasshouse at Chiswick House, my jacket under my arm, admiring the ranked antiquity of its camellias, some of which have been grown here for 160 years:
The sunlight casts exhilaratingly crisp shadows on the walls and floor:
And it is easy to delight in the voluptuous flamenco frills of Camellia japonica ‘Rubra Plena’
the intense red and white marbling of ‘Coralina’:
Camellia japonica ‘Coralina’
and the cool, palest pink of Camellia ‘Gray’s Invincible’ – my favourite of this important collection, a camellia that was bred by a London head gardener in 1824:
The collection at Chiswick has had an extraordinary history. Some of the twelve foot high specimens survived bomb damage to the glasshouse during the Second World War and despite periods of considerable neglect they have managed to keep going – whereas a once similar collection at Chatsworth no longer exists.
But as a gardener, I find myself wondering how I apply the immaculate sight of an entire neatly clipped tree in perfect candy-pink bloom to a real garden situation :
I am distracted for a moment by the handsome pots of young Camellia Japonica ‘Lily Pons’ planted with the fern, Dryopteris affinis:
Camellia japonica ‘Lily Pons’
I have always liked this elegant, white-flowered camellia which has glossy dark green leaves, translucent white petals and a relaxed, upright habit. It is known as an excellent camellia for training along a shady fence. I would love to try it, but can’t quite imagine how effective it would be in the flesh – perhaps this image of an immaculately trained red camellia, found on the seductive website Gardenista, will tempt someone to give it a go?
An immaculate wall trained camellia
It is a relief to step outside the conservatory and find a further enormous tree of a camellia planted jauntily in the open air, taking charge of the glass house. This is no longer a beauty parade – it is just a wonderful specimen tree, with good space around it, welcoming you into the handsome white painted glass house.
Red camellia at the Conservatory Entrance, Chiswick House
The key with camellias in a garden situation is to think hard about how they will work in context before being seduced by the enticing brilliance of a particular flower. There are too many camellias out there, chosen for the perkiness of their flower, but looking brash and lonely in the middle of a front garden or wintery border.
One of the cleverest ways to grow camellias is to celebrate their well-groomed neatness and plant them as a formal hedge. A neighbour’s extremely pretty front garden in Camberwell has a hedge of Camellia japonica ‘Forest Green’ which forms a year-round glossy screen of emerald green against the shiny black Victorian railings:
Camellia japonica ‘Forest Green’ against black railings, Camberwell
Knot garden – Camberwell
Another way to go to with camellias is to find a gentler form which will work with, and not against, a planting scheme. My absolute favourite camellia is Camellia ‘Cornish show’. This is a compact camellia with a relaxed, slightly arching habit and very pretty single white, fragrant flowers, tinged pink on the reverse of the petals. There is a wonderful specimen of this in a woodland edge planting at the Chelsea Physic Garden.
Camellia ‘Cornish Snow’ just coming into flower at the Chelsea Physic Garden, March 2015
As with all camellias, ‘Cornish Snow’ prefers acidic conditions, but I plan to follow Monty Don’s example – he planted a Camellia ‘Cornish Snow’ a few years ago in neutral soil in the Gardener’s World garden and has been successfully using composted bracken around the plant to reduce the pH of the soil.
It is worth visiting the Chelsea Physic Garden just to see this very lovely camellia covered in white flowers – it is planted next to the fantastic Rosa x odorata ‘Bengal Crimson’, famous for being in flower every day of the year, and it was indeed blooming gently all over earlier this month.
Elsewhere in the garden was a perfect, rounded specimen of the lemony-scented Daphne odora and wonderful shoots of Iris orientalis catching the cool spring sunshine.
Daphne odora, Chelsea Physic Garden
Iris orientalis, Chelsea Physic Garden
Where there is space of course, and the right soil, camellias provide a vital early radiance to the spring woodland garden. Here at RHS Wisley camellias have the chance to become substantial plants and look great because they are nestled amongst shrubs and trees of similar scale.
Camellias amongst woodland, Battleston Hill, RHS Wisley
At Great DIxter camellias are used predictably well too. When I visited this month, a lovely pale pink camellia provided a shot of soft colour in this beautifully balanced garden, poised for another electric spring:
Palest pink camellia, Great Dixter, March 2015
Camellia and magnolias, Great Dixter, April 2013
New York yesterday was back to this:
But in London the sun is – amazingly – still shining. There remains another week to wander up and down the aisle of brilliant champion camellias at Chiswick House (the Camellia Show runs until March 29th) or you could slip into the Chelsea Physic Garden any week day to admire Camellia ‘Cornish Show’. If you want a wonderful fix of spring garden plus the chance to buy rare and gorgeous plants of every kind, head to the unusual and generous Great Dixter Spring Plant Fair next weekend.