Camellia williamsii hybrids

These large and long-flowering stunners are reliable and hardy

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The very fact we can grow camellias outdoors almost anywhere in the UK is down to the advent of the beautiful Williams hybrid camellia, which owes its inception to a chance discovery 100 years ago. In previous centuries camellias had been a shrub purely the preserve of the wealthy, needing a large greenhouse to accommodate the tender evergreen leaves. The Williams hybrids were to change that.

In 1918 Camellia saluenesis, a plant with sumptuous pink flowers was found in China. Its seed was sent back to Caerhays Castle in Cornwall, whose owner J C Williams had funded that plant hunting trip, and in the 1920s he successfully crossed it with C. japonica, a hardier plant with tiny blooms grown mainly for its glossy foliage.

The resulting camellias, named C. williamsii, combined hardiness with the large and translucent blooms of the new discovery. Many have long blooming periods from early to late spring. Some, such as ‘November Pink’, bloom as early as autumn. Their names often nod to their birthplace, such as the clear pale pink ‘J C Williams’, and sugar pink ‘Charles Michael’, named for the head gardener at the time, and you can still see some of the original hybrids growing at Caerhays today.

Camellias grow well in sun or shade, but they need acidic soil. If you have limey or chalk soil the solution is to grow them in a large container filled with ericaceous compost, but pay special attention to watering through mid to late summer, which is when the buds for next year’s flowers form. Try to always water with rainwater, as tap water is alkaline, but in a drought an occasional drench with tap water is better than no water at all.

C. williamsii hybrids are fully hardy down to -15C, though they all benefit with shelter from cold winter winds. They are often best grown as a wall shrub facing south or west, where the additional warmth and protection will see them thrive. However, avoid planting them next to very old walls that may have lime mortar, as this will leech into the surrounding soil and cause the leaves to turn yellow.