Gardening with Diarmuid Gavin: 'That's why every garden should have a camellia'
Out of the winter gloom, one stunning shrub is putting on a display - that's why every garden should have a camellia
As a nation we Irish are very fond of a cup of tea - after Turkey, we drink more than any other nation per head of population, averaging between four and six cups a day. But did you know that whether it's Chinese or Indian tea, it all derives from one plant? All budding Mrs Doyles should know the name camellia sinensis.
Thousands of years ago, the Chinese discovered the delicious taste of the dried leaves of this plant when brewed in hot water. However, it wasn't until that great era of plant-hunting during Victorian times that gardeners discovered the delights of the ornamental camellia.
Since then, camellias, though going in and out fashion at different periods, remain a top favourite for our gardeners. It's easy to see why - what other outdoor plant provides such luscious blooms during the sometimes gloomy winter months?
Few hardy shrubs signal that we are advancing towards winter's end better than camellias, as they provide some welcome colour through late winter and into early spring.
Highly valued for their stunning floral displays and fresh, glossy, evergreen foliage, there are tons of varieties available, meaning you'll have plenty of options, ranging from shades of pink and red, through to white and cream.
Their ultimate size, habit and rate of growth vary immensely. Consider how much space the camellia will need as it grows. Whether you'd like something that will stay small and compact or will grow into a bold shrub or even a flowering hedge or screen, there is a camellia for every situation.
Depending on the variety, there are camellias that bloom either in autumn, winter or early spring. So,if you're searching for some winter colour and your soil and aspect are appropriate, now is a good time to check them out in your local garden centre to pick the bloom colour and size you like.
The two primary elements to consider when planning on growing camellias are soil type and where to grow them. They need an acidic base, so if your garden soil doesn't suit, grow them in containers using ericaceous compost. Bear in mind that sometimes near an old wall, the lime can leach out and make that soil alkaline.
If you are growing in containers, you should also use an ericaceous feed and rainwater is best for watering them as tap water can sometimes be too hard.
Yellow leaves are often a sign that they are not getting enough iron or manganese - this happens in alkaline soil where the plant is unable to access these minerals. Sequestered iron can help this process but acidic soil is best.
Another problem can be leaves covered with black sooty material - this is a mould growing on the sections of aphids or scale insects. It's not harmful and can be washed off.
The beautiful luxurious winter blossoms are susceptible to frost and this is what can cause the browning you occasionally see on the flower petals. It's advisable to keep camellias away from morning sun as in the winter a rapid thaw of frozen buds can be too much stress on the flower, so avoid east-facing positions.
One more thing to keep in mind is when the flower buds develop - this happens in summer so you need to ensure your plants don't dry out or buds will shrivel up. Camellias don't generally need any pruning, but if you must prune do it after flowering in spring, but no later or you will be chopping off developing flower buds. Also, you shouldn't feed much later than late summer as this can contribute to bud drop.
So, ideally, you will plant your camellia in a well-drained, moisture-retentive acidic soil with plenty of organic matter. Dappled shade is the best position.
Finally, if you have a very old camellia that's gone wildly out of shape and oversized, you can hard prune this back to the desired size - it won't mind!
The Horticultural Trade Association in the UK recommends these popular camellias for pots or borders:
Upright habit. Strong-growing.
One of the most popular varieties with beautiful semi-double pink flowers that can bloom from February to May. The sasanqua varieties start flowering around October and November - they are a little more tender and have fragrant flowers. Narumigata is a cultivar with white, slightly tinged with pink flowers that are really gorgeous.
If you prefer a more blousy, peony style flower, try Debbie's large, frilly pink blossoms.
3. Adolphe Audusson
Deep red camellias are very striking against the glossy dark evergreen foliage and this variety is an excellent example.
4. Lavinia Maggi
The large double white flowers with pink stripes of this variety make a striking addition to any border.