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Camellias transform the garden in spring

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CAMELLIAS are surpassing themselves this year with a tremendous show of flowers. This was not to be expected after such a cool dull summer last year, when the flower buds were laid down, but the very good autumn weather has made up for it.

No other shrub offers large flowers on such a scale from early spring. The flowers are as big as, and bigger, than most roses, which will struggle to make colour by the end of May for the earliest varieties. Yet the camellia is laden down with flowers while most other shrubs are bare.

And this is all the more remarkable because the first camellias imported to Europe from Japan were grown in greenhouses as they were considered too tender to be grown outdoors. Camellias have long since made the move to the open ground but damage can be caused in severe frost, with the flower buds being lost.

Some kinds of camellia are more prone to frost damage than others. Any of the Japonica varieties are more liable to damage, because the parent species from Japan is a bit tender, whereas the Williams hybrids, such as 'Anticipation', 'Donation, 'JC Williams', 'St Ewe' and 'Inspiration' are more frost-resistant.

These hybrids were first bred from crosses made by JC Williams in Cornwall starting in 1925, using a Chinese species that was tougher than the Japanese camellia. The results of the crosses gave smaller plants with more flowers, and hardier growth. Strangely it took until about the Eighties for these outstanding varieties to be taken up by the trade.

Now most of the camellias sold in garden centres are Williams hybrids, and they have become very popular in gardens. They have a remarkable ability to carry flowers as small plants, even cuttings rooted for propagation often open full-size flowers on tiny plants barely rooted.

Just one or two camellias can transform a garden in spring -- a pillar of soft pink or rich pink flowers over glossy green foliage. From first flowers to last can be more than two months, the buds opening in succession. Ideally, you need to have acidic soil to grow camellias in the open ground as they suffer iron deficiency in limy soil.

Camellias grow best in the open soil, light and humusy, with some shelter, or in a large pot, which is a possibility in a limy area. Or limy soil can be dug out of a broad hole, filling back with acidic soil and lime-free peat compost. Mulching with pine or spruce needles can help to acidify the soil. This might sound like a lot of trouble, but the camellia is certainly worth the effort.

Sunday Independent