Camellia

Early-flowering varieties to get your garden off to a flying start.

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Camellias are the doyen of early-flowering shrubs, producing a succession of fabulous waxy-textured flowers nestled among glossy evergreen leaves, that can, in turn be demure and understated to bordering on the outrageous. Some are even sweetly scented. 

While the main season of flowering spans late winter into spring a number of varieties welcome in the new year with a fanfare of blossom, at a time when such floral treats are especially welcome, particularly given the fact that they thrive in shadier parts of the garden. 

Forms span those coming from Camellia japonica, the hybrid C. williamsiiand additional hybrids derived from a range of species. This has imbued them with a range of growth habits, from compact to more open, so check the habit and growth rate before purchasing. In general C. williamsii hybrids are more tolerant and flower more prolifically in lower light levels than C. japonica types, and drop spent flowers, rather than requiring dead-heading like C. japonicatypes, especially the older varieties. This said C. japonicahas a far wider range of colour and flower form than C. williamsiiwhich comes in white, pink and red.

Camellias thrive in soils which are neutral to acid, preferring light, sandy loams rich in organic matter. They thrive in semi-shaded conditions, even growing in full shade, but flowering is often not as prolific. If training and pruning them to grow against a shady north facing wall or side of a house, choose varieties that are more upright or open in habit. Prune plants after flowering is over and new growth has not yet started. You can also prune new growth back by half to maintain a shrubbier habit.

If living in an area with chalky soil you can grow them in pots, using ericaceous compost. Being shallow rooted they are better in tubs or half-barrels than tall, narrow pots. Feed with an ericaceous liquid fertiliser and if possible irrigate them with rain water. Wherever you grow them don’t allow plants to dry out in summer at the point the buds are forming as is likely to cause them to drop.