Camellias: beautiful and useful

Cornwall is the ‘home’ of camellias in Britain-so many good varieties have been raised there, and many are growing in my Cornish garden. Of those, a number are used as tall, evergreen hedging, which provides a burst of colour in due flowering season.

There are quite a few fastigiate varieties whose densely arranged branches make them suitable for hedging. A hedge can be made all of the same variety for a uniform look, or different ones for a more adventurous effect. Assuming you can provide a location with acid soil, two things need to be considered in selecting camellias: the plant’s habit (what shape it grows in naturally), which will help you estimate planting distances between each tree, and, of course, the colour of its flowers. My smartest hedge is all of one variety, composed of the very upright C. × williamsii E. G. Waterhouse, with plants that went in at approximately 2ft intervals. The flowers are formal-double, clear pink and perfectly imbricated. It flowers early and for a long period.

Two strong-growing hybrids, C. × williamsii Gwavas and C. × williamsii E. T. R. Carlyon, make excellent hedges, having upright form. Both have received the RHS’s Award of Garden Merit. Gwavas bears deep, dusky-pink, double flowers and is one of my favourites; E. T. R. Carlyon bears large, white, semi-double blooms, on trees that will grow to 20ft. I sometimes pick the elegant, pointed buds of the most famous Carlyon hybrid, C. × williamsii Jenefer Carlyon, so they can flower in a glass bowl in the house and display their extravagantly large, semi-double, silvery-pink blossoms.

I planted a hedge as a barricade some years ago, with plants set at about 4ft intervals; it’s now some 14ft high and composed of several varieties. First into flower is C. × williamsii Saint Ewe, which produces masses of rosy-pink single blooms, usually out by Christmas; it’s followed by the later-blooming, brilliant red rosettes of C. japonica Daphne du Maurier, next door to another japonica cultivar, the white Onetia Holland, which has very fine large flowers, although not as many as I would like. For some reason, the white williamsii hybrids don’t appear to spoil in strong, cold winds or frosts as badly as the japonicas; the semi-double, pure white C. × williamsii China Clay is famed for being resistant to such weather, and I’ve admired it flowering away unspoilt even in parts of Scotland.

Most camellias grow in a tidy, bushy way, and they tolerate being pruned to whatever size and shape suits you-a characteristic that made them such successful hedging plants for centuries in the old gardens of Spain and Portugal. If a plant should become too thick and congested in the middle, cut some of the middle out and it will take on a new lease of life. Camellias aren’t too fussy about their conditions, provided their basic needs are understood.

You see them in most parts of England, but they certainly do best in the West, or where they have some woodland or walled protection. They will tolerate open, sunny situations, although they prefer dappled shade-north-facing is best. A hardy camellia might withstand cold frosts in still conditions, but it can be badly damaged by a persisting east wind. The surface roots must be shallow-planted, and will flourish if well mulched, not too close to the stem.

Another good thing about camellias is they don’t mind being moved-the trick is to take the whole surface root out in one fell swoop and move it immediately to its well-prepared new home. If it’s very large, it’s a good idea to prune it back a bit and cut round the root ball, a month or so ahead. Spring or autumn is best for all such operations.

Camellia specialists include Burncoose Nurseries ( and Duchy of Cornwall Nursery ( Christian Lamb’s latest book is ‘This Infant Adventure: Offspring of the Royal Gardens at Kew’ (

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